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American Indian Arts and Crafts:
A Study on Handcrafts and the Industry

Andy P. Abeita
Council for Indigenous Arts and Culture
New Mexico

I am a Native American Indian artist and the first American Indian president of the Indian Arts and Crafts Association (IACA), created in 1974, a national trade association recognized as a 501 (c)(6) trade organization under the U.S. Internal Revenue Service codes. Our membership, national and international, totals over 700. The IACA is the only trade association in the U.S. specifically founded to promote, protect, and preserve the Native American Indian arts-and-crafts industry.

I have spent the last ten years working under the aegis of the IACA preserving aboriginal arts and crafts and seeking legal protections for them. Recently, I have created an educational resource organization with a not-for-profit 501 (c)(3) status in order to adequately address a variety of concerns -- government and public-sector, art-and culture-related, legal and educational. The recently created Council for Indigenous Arts and Culture received its federally designated 501 c3 status in 1998 and is the brain child of the research discussed below.

I speak four Indian languages and have worked professionally as an artist for the last fifteen years. I come from a small American Indian community called Isleta Pueblo, located thirteen miles south of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

For centuries, art and handcrafts have played an important role in the religious and social lives of Indigenous peoples all over the world. Throughout our Native American history it has been no different. The images you see in almost all designs used in Native American arts and crafts are religious. Even the hand processes used in creating such works reflect an individual artisan’s relationship with the tools that begin with a beating heart, mind, and spirit. Our ties to this earth and to our Creator are evident in almost all images in the cultural arts of the Native American artisan.

History: Case Description

In Isleta Pueblo over the last fifty years, we have seen our artist population decline from three hundred to thirty full-time craftsmen and women. The most significant losses were in the late 1970s and 1980s. Until recently we had been famous for our fine-coiled red-clay pottery. It is fast becoming a dying art. Unfair competition from imported fakes and mechanically cast pottery often sold to an unsuspecting consumer as Indian and handmade has made it almost impossible to compete in the commercial marketplace. This forces many potters and silversmiths to discontinue their trade, denying the next generation a chance to continue the tradition.

Currently, I am actively networking with many American Indian tribes and Canadian aboriginal peoples. The primary objective is to help these indigenous tribes develop protective mechanisms to ensure the future preservation of our cultural and traditional properties. In discussions of the use of ancestral images or of arts-and-crafts copyright issues, a movement organized at the local level is the most promising way I have found to connect with the source of the problem.

In 1996, I started laying the groundwork for tribes to consider developing a collective-certification trademark that each tribe could register with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The trademark would be indelibly marked into the handmade products of each artisan of each respective sovereign tribe, thus authenticating the work as a genuine original deriving from the Indian Nation as a whole and from an individual member within that constituency.

I have been personally involved in the development of the trademark project in American Indian communities. Currently, we are creating policies for protecting a trademark’s use by artisans, as well as policies and regulations for its use in commercial trade within and outside of tribal jurisdictions.

American Indian tribes involved in this project are trying to facilitate this new arts-and-crafts initiative. But until recently they did not realize the magnitude of the problem, and finding funding sources within a limited,government-appropriated budget is almost impossible.

History: Statistical Data

In 1979, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs conducted a nationwide census survey of 500 American Indian tribes in the United States. The purpose of the survey was to establish statistical data on native populations and to make economic developmentprojections regarding those populations. Included in this survey were the Indian tribal nations of Zuni (with a population of 10,000), Hopi (13,000), Navajo (245,000), and many river-pueblo tribes of New Mexico with an average population of 3,000 to 5,000 each. These few Indian tribes are notable for being the nation’s leading producers of handmade Indian arts and crafts, both ethnic and contemporary, in the current commercial market.

The census survey found a 30-40% unemployment rate in these communities in 1979. In these same communities up to 85% of the families surveyed reported that arts and crafts was either a primary or secondary form of income. Industry experts with the Indian Arts and Crafts Association point out that the Indian arts-and-crafts industry was at an all-time peak at around that time.

In another U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs census taken in 1995, the same tribes reported an unemployment rate of between 50% and 65%.

In 1985, a survey by the U.S. Department of Commerce indicated that the Indian arts-and-crafts industry was estimated to be generating between $700 and $800 million dollars annually in gross revenue.

In 1997, at the meeting sanctioned by the Indian Arts and Crafts Association in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the U.S. Indian Arts and Crafts Board reported to a multi-tribal delegation that the industry was generating well over one billion dollars annually and growing.

  1979 1985 1995 1997

Unemployment Rate
35 %   57.5 %  
Industry Annual
Gross Revenue
  $ 750 million   <$ 1.2 billion

Statistics clearly indicate that the industry is growing. The Indian Arts and Crafts Association reports that more businesses than ever are carrying American Indian-style handcrafts and jewelry. The association has a mailing list of over 20,000 businesses. But the rising rates of both unemployment and gross revenue expose a perplexing question: if the supply is growing, who is making the product?

The promotion and commercial success of American Indian goods have also created an onslaught of commercial imitations. These have found their way into the marketplace locally in Indian country as well as nationally. Imitations have also begun to take over a substantial portion of the international market.

Investigative reports from cities around the world, such as Santa Fe, Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Milan, Tokyo, and Frankfurt, indicate that large quantities of fake arts and crafts are being represented as authentic and original American Indian art works. The statistical data found in the surveys by the Bureau of Indian Affairs are yet to be analyzed by either tribal entities or U.S. governmental agencies. But the surveys have led the Indian Arts and Crafts Association and the Council for Indigenous Arts and Culture to use the data as best we can.

The U.S. Customs Service reports that since 1990, the Philippines, Mexico, Thailand, Pakistan, and China combined have been importing into the United States an average of thirty million dollars annually in American Indian-style arts and crafts. Although the U.S. Customs Service stated that the dollar amount was only an estimate, the numbers are significant nonetheless.

The U.S. Customs law, 1989 Omnibus Fair Trade Bill reg.19 CFR sec. E 134.43, requires that any and all Indian-style jewelry or crafts imported into the United States must have a country-of-origin stamp “indelibly” marked into each individual piece of jewelry or craft. The down side of the law is a loophole in its language. The intent of the law is to force importers and manufacturers to mark their goods indelibly with the country of origin, by die-stamping or otherwise permanently marking them. But many manufacturers have found that attaching a small soldered wire to jewelry with a tag indicating the country of origin enables the products to pass U.S. Customs inspection. (There are over 330 ports of entry into the United States) After the goods have passed through the customs port, many unscrupulous importers and unethical arts-and-crafts dealers simply snip off the wire tags and begin to sell the goods as authentic American Indian art works. The cost of products created in many foreign countries can be as low as one fourth the cost of U.S.-produced goods because of the low wages paid to workers in those countries.

The information from the U.S. Customs Service indicates that manufacturing copies of American Indian ethnic and contemporary arts and handcrafts has enhanced the incomes of many individuals, companies, and countries outside of the United States and Canada. Living in a free society, American Indians are not against free enterprise or the jobs created by a successful industry. But the key to successful and ethical marketing of any ethnic or commercially produced good, regardless of the country you live in, is to properly identify the individual producer and/ or the country the good was produced in. As the old saying goes, “Give credit where credit is due.”

In 1997, I was appointed by the United Nations International Trade Center to represent the United States as delegate to a UNESCO/ ITC world conference held in Manila, the Philippines. The conference’s title was “International Symposium on Crafts and the International Market: Trade and Codification.” Its focus included three basic elements: 1) the promotion and marketing of artisanal handmade goods, 2) the protection of handmade artisanal goods, and 3) the codification of artisanal goods through the World Customs Organization (WCO).

Currently, I hold a position on an ad hoc committee created under the auspices of the United Nations, the International Trade Commission, and the World Customs Organization. The committee has thirty-seven members, each representing a different country. The purpose is to provide the logistical trade information needed to amend the International Harmonized Tariff Schedule (IHTS) to better protect and further develop the handcraft trade worldwide. If successful, this united effort will provide recommendations to the World Customs Organization for the protection of handcrafts under international trade law. If they become law, these recommendations will modify current provisions of the IHTS system. Currently, international trade law does not provide a way for the system to differentiate commercial, mechanically produced jewelry or handcrafts from authentic, handmade arts and crafts.

A few of the underlying concerns that many countries are facing today in the world handcraft sector are the following:

The production of authentic, handmade products and their distribution in national and international markets has crucial economic importance because of the thousands of jobs created by this sector of commerce.

Promoting ethnic and contemporary handcrafts provides a way for artisans and their respective countries to express their identities and provide the world with the beauty and historical meaning of cultural arts that originate authentically among particular peoples and nations. Many handmade products currently produced for the commercial market are recognized as being centuries old in both design and handcraft technique. Nearly every country in the world produces handcrafts that embody its cultural heritage, often with religious or other symbolism that has deep social and historical significance.
Currently there are no data available from international trade experts to help countries ascertain whether and to what extent their handcraft industries are subject to trade competition from others, especially those who use mainstream mechanized production methods.

Most delegates to the Manila symposium from eighty-seven countries agreed, in both committee and plenary discussions, with regard to folklore and traditional culture, that if authentic traditional handcrafts are not protected they will soon die. Today many singular cultures are assimilating into a multicultural society. In order to preserve the continuity of traditional Indigenous cultures, we must find the means to recognize common concerns and develop legal strategies to engage international issues when we find those common concerns.


Cirillo, Dexter. 1992. "Southwestern Indian Jewelry," New York: Abbeville Press.

Indian Arts and Crafts Association (IACA) and the Council for Indigenous Arts and Culture. 1999. "Collecting Authentic Indian Arts and Crafts: Traditional Work of the Southwest". Summertown, Tenn.: Book Publishing Company.

Jacka, Lois and Jerry. 1988. "Beyond Tradition: Contemporary Indian Art and Its Evolution". Flagstaff, Ariz.: Northland Publishing.

Morris, Walter F. Jr. 1996. "Handmade Money: Latin American Artisans in the Market Place". Washington, D.C.: Organization of American States.

Schrader, Robert Fay. 1983. The Indian Arts and Crafts Board. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

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