Man sentenced to prison for selling fake Native artwork

A man was sentenced to prison for selling fake Native artwork in Alaska Aug. 28.

Cristobal “Cris” Magno Rodrigo, 59, from Washington state, was sentenced to two years in federal prison for violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act.

For years, Rodrigo was selling Philippine-produced products as authentic Alaska Native-produced artwork at a store in Ketchikan, Alaska.

The supplier of the products was Rodrigo Creative Crafts, a company owned by Rodrigo and his wife and located in the Philippines.

The business was created for the sole purpose of producing carvings featuring Alaska Native designs and motifs using Philippine labor, according to court documents. The carvings were shipped to the U.S. and then to Ketchikan, where they were later sold as authentic Alaska Native art.

In 2019 and for part of 2021, the family and their Alaska-based company employees sold over $1 million worth of Philippine-made carvings presented as Alaska Native artwork.

“The Rodrigos sold imported products as Alaska Native made in their Ketchikan, Alaska store,” said Edward Grace, Assistant Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, in a press release on August 30. “This deceptive business practice cheated customers and undermined the economic livelihood of Alaska Native artists. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a dedicated team of special agents who work on violations of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. This sentence was the result of the strong collaboration between our special agents, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

Rodrigo was also sentenced to make a $60,000 donation to the Tlingit and Haida Central Counsel Vocational Program, write a letter of apology to be published in the Ketchikan Daily Newspaper, and serve three years of supervised release or parole. His two-year initial confinement is the longest sentence a defendant has received for any Indian Arts and Crafts violation since the truth-in-marketing law became public law in 1990.

There are other defendants in a similar case, with ongoing cases: Glenda Tiglao Rodrigo, 46, and Christian Ryan Tiglao Rodrigo, 24. Rodrigo also hired Alaska Natives at both Ketchikan stores to represent and sell the Philippine-produced artwork as their own authentic Alaska Native artwork. According to the Department of Justice, the Alaska Native workers told customers they were all related family working in the store, and the art was all authentically produced from locally sourced materials and made by Alaska Natives.

“The actions the defendant took to purposefully deceive customers and forge artwork is a cultural affront to Alaska Native artisans who pride themselves on producing these historical works of art, and negatively affects those who make a living practicing the craft,” said U.S. Attorney S. Lane Tucker for the District of Alaska.

The Indian Arts and Crafts Act was signed into law in 1990 and is a truth-in-marketing law aimed to protect authentic American Indian and Alaskan Native artisans and products unique to their culture and traditions. It was passed to deter misrepresentation in the marketing of Indian art and craft products within the United States. Many have advocated for additional measures to prevent fraud or misrepresentation of authentic American Indian and Alaskan Native and American Indian and Alaskan Native-style traditional and contemporary arts and crafts produced after 1934.

Some traditional items frequently copied by non-Indians include jewelry, pottery, baskets, carved stone fetishes, woven rugs, kachina dolls, and clothing.

“The Indian Arts and Crafts Board administers and enforces the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, a truth-in-marketing law,” said Indian Arts and Crafts Board Director Meridith Stanton in a press release. “The Act is intended to rid the Alaska Native and Indian arts and crafts marketplace of fakes and counterfeits in order to protect the economic livelihoods and cultural heritage of Alaska Native and Indian artists and craftspeople and their Tribes and villages, as well as the buying public.”

“Mr. Rodrigo’s sentencing should send a strong message to those who prey upon authentic Alaska Native artists and vulnerable consumers that this destructive conduct will not be tolerated, and Act violators will be held accountable,” Stanton said of Rodrigo’s sentence.

The case was investigated by the U.S. Department of Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Office of Law Enforcement with assistance from the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, U.S. Customs and Border Protections, and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.

Currently, the Dept. of Interior is considering adding protected mediums under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. It recently conducted a meeting with comments from artists and tribal representatives during the Santa Fe Indian Market at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts.

The DOI is accepting public comments on the adjustments until 11:50 pm Eastern Time on Friday, Sept. 1. 2023, at consultation@bia.gov.

Anyone who suspects a violation of the Indian Arts and Crafts Actcan submit a complaint to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board at doi.gov/iacb/should-i-report-potential-violation, by emailing iacb@ios.doi.gov, or call (888) 278-3253.

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