Man sentenced to record prison term in fake native-Alaskan art scheme

This is the very definition of cultural appropriation.

A Washington state man has been sentenced to two years in prison for running a million-dollar scheme to pass off stone carvings and totem poles as native Alaskan art, but that had actually been manufactured at a factory in the Philippines run by his wife.

Federal prosecutors say Cristobal “Cris” Magno Rodrigo, 59, ran two art stores in Ketchikan, Alaska — a popular tourist-cruise destination in the southern part of the state — which claimed to sell works made by hand by a local Tlingit family of artists, using local materials. 

Pieces there routinely sold for thousands of dollars, prosecutors said. Between 2019 and 2021, investigators say the two stores, Alaska Stone Arts LLC, and Rail Creek LLC, took in more than $1 million in revenue.

Rodrigo, who had spent 20 years working as a carver for native art businesses in the town, had in fact shipped the art from the Philippines where it was manufactured by workers he had trained at a factory run by his wife, court documents alleged.

Prosecutors say Rodrigo, who has Filipino heritage, hired native Alaskans and non-Alaskan natives to work in the store and present themselves as a family of local carvers who made the pieces themselves.

Misrepresenting the art as having been made by native hands is a violation of the Indian Arts and Crafts acts which protects against the false advertising of such work as genuine, prosecutors said.

Rodrigo’s two-year prison term was the highest such sentence ever given for a violation of the act, prosecutors said.   

“This type of offense essentially steals food off of the table of Alaska Natives, who spend countless hours producing their goods for the market, only to have them undercut by fake artwork,” federal prosecutors argued in court documents.

Rodrigo, who pleaded guilty shortly after his arrest earlier this year, also agreed to make a $60,000 donation to vocational programs run by the Tlingit and Haida Central Council, and write a letter of apology to be published in the Ketchikan Daily News. 

His attorney didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Rodrigo’s wife, Glenda Tiglao Rodrigo, 46, and their son Christian Ryan Tiglao Rodrigo, 24, were also charged and the cases against them are ongoing. A message left with the attorney representing them wasn’t immediately returned.  

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