Silver Hand revisions may be useful, some Native artists say

Posted: Thursday, March 08, 2007

Tightening rules regarding use of the Silver Hand emblem is, by and large, a good idea, but some provisions in bills before the Alaska Legislature may need to be reconsidered, Native artists speaking with the Peninsula Clarion said this week.

Senate Bill 97, and its House companion, HB 161, would alter the current law governing use of the familiar emblem. It would, for instance, redefine who is an Alaska Native artist by dropping a “blood quantum” provision requiring a qualifying artist to be at least one-quarter Alaska Indian, Eskimo or Aleut, and requiring only that they be part of a tribe or group recognized by the federal or state government. That would essentially leave such determinations up to tribal communities, relieving the Alaska State Council on the Arts of that duty.

The bill would also dump the term “handicraft” in favor of “art;” allow civil actions, as well as the current criminal penalties, for misuse of the emblem; and expand the types of media artists could use and still have their artwork considered Native art.

Soldotna resident Martha Hansen, a Native artist and Silver Hand permit holder for five years, works in baleen and caribou antler and produces scrimshaw. She said the program has been good for her, and backs most of the changes proposed in SB 97.

Expanding the materials artists can use is a good idea, she said, but leaving it largely to Native communities to decide who qualifies as an artist might not be such a good idea. She worries that could lead to favoritism at the expense of other Native artists.

“Don’t give it to the tribes,” she said, adding that she would reduce the blood quantum provision to one-eighth instead.

On the other hand, Hansen said officials at Native art trade shows have been fairly thorough about checking an artists’ credentials and ensuring that what is being portrayed as Alaska Native art actually is.

Lorita Linder, a Native artist from Ninilchik who produces jewelry, some of which is currently sold at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., expressed many of the same sentiments.

“I think it may be a good idea to lower the blood quantum, but if left to the tribes, the program could lose credibility,” she said.

Linder works in ivory, glass beads and clay. She said it would be better for her if the allowed-media list were expanded. She also favors provisions allowing artists access to civil court with regard to Silver Hand emblem use.

Carol Johns-Okamoto, a Native artist who makes her home in Kasilof, said the “cut-and-dried” blood-quantum restriction should remain in the law.

“I think it works fine the way it is,” she said. “You get into politics when you get into villages. You could get hurt feelings when one artist is accepted and not another.”

As for expanding media, Johns-Okamoto is all for that.

“That sounds just fine to me. We’re in the 21st Century and Native artists are using their imaginations in many new ways. Expanding the list would enhance their art.”

Johns-Okamoto said totem poles mass-produced in Asia are to be found everywhere in Alaska, but they aren’t much of a problem. On the other hand, she said, she’s seen artwork, some of it very good, that could fool tourists about its origin.

She sees the Silver Hand program as very useful, but goes further, not only displaying the emblem prominently, but also offering her customers certificates of authenticity.

“I think it is important to have that,” she said.

Saunders McNeill, with the Alaska State Council on the Arts, said the sentiments of the artists reached by the Clarion mirrored the feedback the arts council was getting regarding concerns with having tribes determine who qualifies as an artist.

“People want to know exactly what that means, how it would work and what it would look like,” she said.

She also said the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 does not include blood quantum requirements, but instead references tribes, which designate who their members are.

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