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Seattle artists face federal charges after allegedly claiming to be tribe members and trying to pass off art as Native American

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Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

Two Washington state artists are facing federal charges for allegedly impersonating Native Americans in an attempt to sell tribal artwork in galleries in the downtown Seattle area.

Lewis Anthony Rath of Maple Falls and Jerry Chris Van Dyke of Seattle were charged with allegedly violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990. The act prohibits anyone from misrepresenting or faking American Indian or Alaska Native heritage in an attempt to sell traditional Native American goods and arts and crafts.

Rath and Van Dyke are both accused of lying about their status as members of American Indian tribes in an effort to sell traditional Native American artwork, according to the Associated Press. The U.S. attorney's office said that Rath claimed status as a member of the San Carlos Apache tribe and Van Dyke claimed status as a member of the Nez Perce Tribe. The reportedly counterfeit artwork included pieces styled as traditional Native American masks, totem poles, and pendants and were sold to customers at Raven's Nest Treasure in Pike Place Market and at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop on the waterfront in Seattle in 2019.

Edward Grace, assistant director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, said in a press release that crimes of flooding the market with counterfeit Native American artwork "cheat the consumer, undermine the economic livelihood of Native American artists, and impair Indian culture."

The two accused men were scheduled to appear in court Friday afternoon. Gregory Geist and Vanessa Pai-Thompson, the federal public defenders representing Rath and Van Dyke, did not have an immediate comment on the case, according to the AP.

Rath has been charged with four counts of "misrepresentation of Indian-produced goods," which carries a sentence of up to five years in prison. Van Dyke has been charged with two counts of "misrepresentation of Indian produced goods" as well.

Additionally, Rath has been charged with one count of possessing golden eagle parts and another account of possessing parts of other migratory birds, according to the AP.

The two allegedly fraudulent or artists reportedly lied to "Raven's Nest" owner Matthew Steinbrueck about their tribal status, and he believed them after checking out their documentation.

"I've been doing this on good faith for many years — for more than 30 years. Our whole mission is to represent authentic Native art. We've had more than 100 authentic Native artists. I've always just taken their word for it," Steinbrueck said Friday.

Van Dyke told police that it was Steinbrueck's idea to represent the art as traditional Native American artwork. Steinbrueck denied the accusation, saying that Van Dyke was probably attempting to remove some amount of his responsibility for the crimes he committed.

No charges have been filed against Ye Olde Curiosity Shop or Raven's Nest at this time.

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