Juneau shops mislead tourists on Native art

Posted: Monday, September 18, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- Half of Juneau's downtown tourist shops use cheap, foreign knockoffs to mislead customers seeking Alaska-made Native art, an investigation by the Juneau Empire showed.

''Made in Indonesia'' stickers are removed, covered and sometimes replaced with ''Made in Alaska'' stickers. Non-Native artists are presented as Native and imported products are passed off as locally made, reporters discovered in repeated visits to 26 shops this summer.

''The misrepresentation is rampant,'' said Kathy Ellis, co-owner of The Raven's Journey Gallery in downtown Juneau. ''The stores in this town are packed with made-in-Bali art. It's hurting local artists, I think, big time.''

Juneau artist and art collector Michael Hunter worries that misrepresenting art could destroy the community's credibility among travelers, who spend more than $60 million a year in Juneau on souvenirs and tours.

The deceptions also hurt Alaska artists, many from cash-strapped villages.

''That has had some real impacts on individual artists who make a living selling their own artwork,'' said Rose Atuk Fosdick, a member of the new Bering Strait Inuit Cooperative.

''There are very few jobs available in small communities and people have relied on their abilities to make arts and crafts,'' said Fosdick, of Nome. ''They (merchants) are benefiting from the fact that people want to buy Alaska Native artwork, but that money does not go to the people it should.''

Earlier this month, shop owner Norma Carandang pitched her wares at the Billiken Gift Shop. She pointed out soapstone carvings signed by Chupak, who she said is an Alaska Native artist. She showed off a carved antler made by Bob Merry, who she said was a local artist. She pointed out bowls she said were made by an Anchorage Native carver named Larry.

In reality, Chupak is Chivly Chup, a Cambodian immigrant. Bob Merry lives in Anchorage. Larry is Larry Lynd, an Anchorage wholesale art dealer who is not Native and who does not carve bowls.

Lynd wasn't surprised that a retailer had misrepresented his work. The Anchorage wholesaler operates a factory in Indonesia that produces Alaska-style art. He sells Alaska-made and Native-made crafts as well, and said all his merchandise made overseas is marked.

''It's stamped when we sell it,'' Lynd said.

At Frontier Gifts, a reporter saw two masks made by Lynd's Indonesian factory bearing ''Made In Alaska'' stickers. Hours later, the tags had been removed. Shop owner Naya Lazaro admitted the masks were made overseas, but denied they were ever tagged ''Made In Alaska.'' When pressed, she admitted to painting over ''Made in Indonesia'' tags on some of the totems she sells.

In virtually every Juneau shop selling imported art and souvenirs, reporters saw dozens of items made overseas, but displayed with the tags removed or covered.

At Timberwolf, Erlinda's Gift Shop, Treasures of Alaska and the Alaska Gift Cache, price stickers were placed directly over the ''Made in China'' tag, or the label had been removed.

At Northern Treasures, each ''Native'' doll on a rack sports a tag telling the doll's story, and each tag has a portion carefully torn off.

When asked outright, most shopkeepers readily admit the products are made in Asia. Some do not.

Shopkeepers in Hickok's Trading Company told a reporter they didn't know where any of their masks and totems were made. A clerk at Billiken Gift Shop said the totems came from Anchorage. A clerk at Frontier Gifts said carvings in her shop came from ''up north.'' The owners of all three shops later acknowledged all the items were imported.

''The power is in what's not said. That's the whole conundrum in this industry,'' said Mick Beasley, an Alaska Native artist and co-owner of Beasley's Art Gallery. ''It's hard when you look at a collection of stuff -- five pieces with the Silver Hand (denoting Alaska Native made) and five without, all mixed together. The casual observer won't tell the difference between what's Native and not Native. It's about what's not said.''

Retailers and wholesalers are clever in their ability to imply artists are Native without lying, or that products are Alaska-made when they are not, said Steven Rouse, who administered the state's Made in Alaska program from 1994 until last January.

Shopkeepers blur the distinction between imports and Native-made pieces by putting the Alaska name on them and positioning products together, according to Rouse.

''If it's not over the line, it's on the line,'' he said.

Rouse visited Juneau at least twice a year to make sure retailers were not abusing the Made in Alaska mother bear and cub symbol. When confronted, many shopkeepers claimed ignorance or misunderstanding, he said.

''Maybe it was deliberate ignorance or plausible deniability,'' he said. ''I'd say about 10 percent of the shops out there don't care much about any confusion.''

Shopkeepers often hedge about the identity of one of Juneau's most prolific Native-style artists, Chivly Chup, who signs his work as Chupak.

Carol Carlson, owner of Goldmine Gifts, said shopkeepers have no excuse for not knowing Chup is from Cambodia. She said Chup and includes a biography with each art piece that clearly states Chup's history.

''If they want to make a sale, they will say he's Native. We've lost a lot of sales because we tell them he's from Cambodia, even if they love the piece.'' Carlson said. ''People will lie to make the sale.''

''It's packaging and marketing. Is it ethical? No. Is it filling a needed market niche because there is a lack of authentic carved products? Yes,'' said Rouse, the former investigator.

''They do want a Native craft and there's only about 10 percent available in the trade. The other 90 percent is either Alaska-made or imported,'' said Lynd, the Anchorage wholesaler.

''We have both authentic and not, and they can usually tell by the price,'' said Jared Williams, manager of Alaska Gift Cache. He said with masks and totems, the difference is $150 compared to $1,000. He's also had customers ask for an Alaska-made totem pole for $30.

''It's not going to happen. So we try to have something for everyone,'' he said.

Rouse said misrepresentation of art today is not as bad as it was six years ago, when he took over the Made in Alaska program.

Originally Ketchikan was the most egregious offender, he said, with retailers routinely tagging imports as Made in Alaska. A cooperative effort by his program and Made in Alaska dealers turned the situation around, he said, and Creek Street in Ketchikan is now one of the state's premier show places for authentic Alaska art.

Artist Michael Hunter said he hopes merchants in Juneau will police themselves to protect the town's reputation. He thinks Juneau would benefit from the Juneau Chamber of Commerce and the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau policing shops. A newsletter could watchdog violators.

Hunter said deceptive practices, even by a few shops, could hurt the reputation of the entire Juneau business community.

''People may not pay attention here, but they sure do back in New England,'' Hunter said. ''And they're planning their vacations.''

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