Native American Art

Native American Art News covers issues and events impacting Native communities, arts institutions holding American Indian and Hawaiian artifacts and the 150 year old trade in Native American art. Articles discuss tribal claims that conflict with scientific and scholarly access, the lack of funding and federal support for tribal heritage offices or for US museums to comply with existing laws, and the constitutional as well as pragmatic issues that arise when legislating for sacred and communally-owned items.

American Indian art has been legally collected for more than 140 years, encouraged by the US government. For the last 40 years, there has been greater recognition of Native American and Hawaiian people’s rights in their indigenous heritage. Trade in Native American and Hawaiian cultural items has primarily been regulated under two US laws, the Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA), which limits trade of items over a 100-year rolling date to objects found on private lands, and the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which requires US institutions receiving federal funds to inventory human remains, funerary objects and return them to tribes. NAGPRA also has criminal provisions that make trade in communally-owned ceremonial items unlawful.

In both 2016 and 2017, controversial legislation known as the STOP Act proposed removing past federal support for museum and private collecting of Native art. It made export of an undefined category of art illegal and encouraged the voluntary return all Indian-affiliated objects to tribes, potentially discouraging a commercial market on which Native artisans depend, and overwhelming tribes with unwanted returns. STOP also departed from Congress’ original intent under ARPA to preserve scientific and academic access for the public benefit through private collections of Native American cultural objects. Meanwhile, an art dealer-backed community-based voluntary returns program focused on key, current, ceremonial items has returned dozens of important objects in 2017.

Other Native American art issues range from trade legislation to laws to protect Native American artisans from fakes entering the market from overseas, challenges to monument designations that would open protected and sacred sites to commercial exploitation, and controversies surrounding Native artists’ rights to freedom of expression in works that sometimes challenge tribal traditions.