Silver hand gets tighter grip

Legislature considers strengthening, amending Native art law

Posted: Thursday, March 08, 2007

State lawmakers are considering measures that would tighten the rules regarding a familiar emblem used to differentiate artwork created by Alaska Natives from that produced by non-Natives and foreign manufacturers.

Senate Bill 97, sponsored by Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, and its companion, House Bill 161, sponsored by Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Kodiak, would make several changes in state law governing application of the Silver Hand emblem to artwork, among other things, giving the Alaska State Council on the Arts exclusive control over issuing permits for its use.

SB 97 also would begin referring to creations of Alaska Native artists as “art” instead of “handicraft,” and clearly set out how the Silver Hand seal was not to be used, clarifying penalties for violating the Silver Hand laws.

The current law makes violation of the Silver Hand use rules a Class B misdemeanor. SB 97 would open the civil courts to plaintiffs seeking remedy for such violations.

In all, the proposed amendments to Title 29 statutes governing trade and commerce are aimed at protecting consumers by ensuring the legitimacy of Alaska Native Art, Stevens said in a draft sponsor statement released this week.

While some of the changes may appear like bookkeeping, they are nevertheless important, said Sven Haakanson Jr., director of the Aluttiq Museum in Kodiak and chair of the Alaska State Council on the Arts.

“The motivation is to update the law so that it can help Native artists in today’s world,” Haakanson said.

Local Native artists contacted by the Clarion this week by and large supported the effort to tighten the rules

Under proposed amendments, Native artists could employ a wider variety of media and still have the products considered Native art.

The current law, dating from the 1960s, limits artists to traditional media — ivory, bone, grass, baleen, animal skins, wood and furs — materials stemming from the subsistence lifestyle.

Contemporary Native artists, however, often incorporate metals, glass and other items that don’t fall neatly into the category of traditional materials, Haakanson said.

Stevens’ bill would amend the current law to permit the use of clay, textile, fiber, wood, metal, plastic or glass, or combinations of those, as well as traditional Alaska Native materials.

The Bill also defines “original” to mean new and unique (not a reproduction) and created or crafted by one person without the use of mechanized duplication instruments, electronic duplication instruments, or other devices used for copying large numbers of articles.

Perhaps the most important proposal concerns how an artist is determined to be an Alaska Native.

The current statute defines an Alaska Native as an Alaska resident having no less than one-quarter Eskimo, Aleut or Indian blood. The bill would drop the blood quantum requirement, replacing it with a new provision defining an “Alaska Native person” as a state resident who is a member of a “recognized Alaska tribe,” a term specifically defined to include groups listed by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs as Indian tribes, and groups of individuals recognized by the state as Alaska Native tribes.

Authentic Alaska Native art would be defined as art created or crafted by an Alaska Native person as defined above.

The effect of dropping blood quantum provisions would be that the Alaska State Council on the Arts would no longer have to make the determination about who is a Native artist. That would be up to tribes. Essentially, artwork would get a kind of peer review by other Alaska Native artists, Haakanson said, helping to create a better and stronger value to the Silver Hand emblem.

“It would make sure the artwork has some cultural connection,” he said.

Artists the Clarion spoke with expressed concern that leaving the determination up to villages and tribes could bring tribal politics into those decisions.

The current law lacks the teeth for preventing artwork from being falsely presented as genuinely produced by Alaska Natives, Haakanson said. For instance, artwork in Alaska Native motifs but manufactured en mass in China might deceive casual consumers about who produced the artwork, he said.

Saunders McNeill, of the Alaska Council on the Arts, said that is a problem, but added a federal law requires items manufactured in foreign countries to bear a sticker showing where.

“There are different facets to counterfeiting Alaska Native art, either small scale, or importing large scale,” McNeill said. “Where the deception comes in is where the country of origin label, which is required, is taken off.”

Saunders said the Silver Hand emblem is one of many ways to authenticate Native artwork, and not the be-all and end-all.

“What’s important in authenticating is having a clear line of provenance,” she said.

Artists are encouraged to include a business card with artwork and to provide shopkeepers with contact and biographical information that could be given to buyers. Consumers should check for stickers, ask for the name of the artist and where he or she lives.

In addition, each Silver Hand permit has a specific number that is never reused. They follow an artist “to the pearly gates,” McNeill said.

The Silver Hand program, McNeill said, provides authentication services to artists from about 225 tribes in Alaska.

Hal Spence can be reached at

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