What does authentic mean?

The world today often seems confusing, making it difficult to separate what’s genuine from what isn’t. Knowing what’s real, what’s authentic, can be hard to discover at times. Even labels are often misleading, more advertising than information. There are, however, some ways to discern the genuine from the imitation, especially when it comes to handcrafted Native American jewelry. Thanks to the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, labels on Native jewelry today are far more likely to contain the reality of how a piece was made and who made it. That is, if the buyer is informed. 

In response to the problem of lower quality work with cheap materials being sold at higher prices and labeled as “Native made”, this law was enacted to protect both buyers and artists from scams. This act carries some stiff penalties for those who label jewelry as Native if it didn’t come from an artist belonging to a federally recognized tribe or pueblo. 

Recognized tribes are defined as “any Indian tribe, band, nation, Alaska Native village, or any organized group or community which is recognized as eligible for the special programs and services provided by the United States to Indians because of their status as Indians; or any Indian group that has been formally recognized as an Indian tribe by a State legislature or by a State commission or similar organization legislatively vested with State tribal recognition authority.”

Work created by anyone not affiliated with a tribe which fits the definition in the law cannot be labeled as “Native American” or by the name of an individual tribe. For example, any piece labeled “Navajo made” must have indeed been made by a member of the Navajo Nation.

Before you purchase a piece, particularly from a fair, juried competition or powwow, it’s a good idea to find out the event’s requirements for authenticity. These should be available on their website. You can ask stores or galleries for a certificate of authenticity, or the name and affiliation of the artist. Buyers who want to own a handcrafted piece are doing themselves, and the artist a favor by ensuring that the label “authentic” actually means that. 

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