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Maker of Totem Poles Allegedly Faked Native American Heritage

According to a federal investigation, the Washington-based artist Lewis Anthony Rath misrepresented himself as a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe in an effort to present totem poles and other crafts he made as authentic Native American artifacts. On November 23rd, a special agent from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service filed a complaint against Rath finding him in violation of four counts of Misrepresentation of Indian Produced Goods and Products, one count of Unlawful Possession of Golden Eagle Parts, and one count of Unlawful Possession of Migratory Bird Parts.

The complaint followed an two-year investigation by the USFWS in which federal agents were tasked with following a lead that Rath was potentially in violation of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits misrepresenting goods as produced by Native Americans when that is not the case.

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After receiving an initial complaint in the summer of 2018, federal agents investigated Rath’s background and found that he was not an enrolled tribal member or registered Indian artisan. Following this discovery, undercover agents began buying some of Rath’s work from various small galleries and shops around Seattle made by Rath, who had represented himself as a San Carlos Apache artisan in biographies he had supplied to the businesses. When the agents wrote Rath on Facebook and requested custom totem poles, Rath again represented himself as Apache.

Last December, agents raided Rath’s home and, according to court documents, seized “carving tools, carving design notes, receipts for the sale of artwork/carvings, electronics, and bird feathers.” At this point, according to the documents, Rath waived his Miranda rights and allegedly confirmed that he knew about Indian Arts and Crafts Act while also admitting to faking his heritage.

“Rath admitted that he is not a lineal descendent of an enrolled member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe,” the complaint reads. “He […] later admitted telling his costumers that he was San Carlos Apache,” claiming “that his birth mother told him he had some Indian bloodlines, may be [sic] Apache.” When Rath took a DNA test, however, it turned out that he had some traces of Mayan ancestry but no Apache or Native North American heritage.

It is unclear when Rath will be tried. Violation of the IACA can result in fines of up to $250,000 and up to five years in jail for first-time offenders. And the consequences of such forgeries are notable as tribal economies around America suffer.

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of the Interior and member of the Laguna Pueblo Tribe Deb Haaland said, “Buying authentic pottery, jewelry, mixed-media creations, paintings, and other art from Native American artists help support tribal economies,” said  in a statement about the IACA, “Unfortunately, forgery and copies hinder the positive economic opportunities available to Native artists and their families.”

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