Fake Indigenous art not Indigenous at all, artists say

Our artwork is ‘the way we write down our history, our worldview, our laws. It really is a written language,’ Shain Jackson says.

Shain Jackson was visiting a friend in England a few years back when the friend excitedly showed him his collection of authentic Indigenous art from Canada. What Jackson saw shocked him.

Several of the carvings in the collection were made of mahogany and another type of wood not typically used in Indigenous carving. And there was no sense to their designs. The pieces clearly looked inauthentic to Jackson, a Shíshálh Nation artist who knows and understands the histories, stories and protocols that go into his craft.

The bogus pieces were offensive, but Jackson didn’t have the heart to tell that to his friend, who was pleased with his collection.

It broke my heart for a number of reasons that not one of the pieces he had was made here. But it’s really indicative of the fact that people just don’t know,” Jackson says.

As a Discourse investigation recently revealed, fake Indigenous art is pervasive: 75 per cent of the shops we investigated in Vancouver carried at least some inauthentic Indigenous souvenirs. But these pieces violate the essence of Indigenous art — the history, traditions, protocols and respect, Indigenous artists say.

So, what does this mean for the ethos practiced by authentic Indigenous artists, for whom creating art isn’t just a way of making a living, but also a way of trying to carry on a tradition?

Art-culture connection lost

At the end of a rainy Friday afternoon, Shain Jackson finishes up a busy week of work at his warehouse in an industrial area of North Vancouver.

Jackson owns and operates Spirit Works Limited, a 12-year-old business employing up to 10 Indigenous people at a time, which makes and distributes authentic West Coast Indigenous art and gifts. But he is also a Shíshálh Nation member who holds two traditional Indigenous names: Niniwum and Selapem. And he left a career as a lawyer to pursue his art.

Jackson has seen a lot of fake Indigenous art over the years. The first examples that spring to his mind are fake Indigenous Coast Salish masks he’s seen sold on Robson Street and in gift shops in Vancouver.

The fakes were carved out of mahogany and depicted a barely discernible Coast Salish-style eye design. Jackson found this offensive not just because the design was bad, but because it offended his teachings about what the eye is meant to convey.

“My teachers taught me that the Coast Salish eye design represents the eyes of your ancestors, and even the eye of the creator,” he says. “I was taught that the eye reminds us that we’re always watched, and that we should do our best.”

This photo from his Spirit Works studio captures what an authentic Coast Salish eye looks like, Shain Jackson says.

In a legitimate piece of art, these teachings are apparent, he says.

Jackson learned his craft from established artists such as his grandmother who was a basket weaver, as well as from prominent Indigenous artists Rick Harry (Xwa-lack-tun) and Aaron Nelson-Moody (Tawx’sin Yexwulla). In addition to teaching him the technical aspects of making the artwork, they taught him the traditions, histories and stories that are woven into the art’s cultural DNA.

Fake art purporting to represent the horns depicted in Coast Salish artwork also bother him. In legitimate work, great care is taken in showing horns, and for good reason. The horn in Coast Salish art depicts something or someone who is spiritually endowed — a supernatural being, he says.  

“When I see the fact that somebody’s not understanding of the artwork, and trying to copy something they don’t understand, and then changing it a little bit and then changing it again and again — there’s serious repercussions to that because eventually it’s unrecognizable, isn’t it?”

Imagine if Indigenous people had paintings by a renowned Canadian artist mass-produced overseas then sold cheaply here. “If they took a Robert Bateman and copied it overseas and brought it back, yes, that would be egregious,” Jackson says. “The non-Indigenous community would be up in arms.”

It’s copy art without context’

Across the Burrard Inlet in an East Vancouver coffee shop, Nisga’a artist Haisla Collins is sketching pictures of artwork she hopes to create soon.

Haisla Collins shares a sketch of an art piece she’s working on for an upcoming project.

Collins learned how to be an artist in art school, but she deeply respects the customs and traditions that are imbued in authentic Indigenous artwork. Art expresses Indigenous people’s worlds, but the term Indigenous art is misleading, she says. “It’s art from various different kinds of people to various different kinds of cultural practices.”

Collins has seen fake Indigenous art since she was a kid. She points to carved poles as an example of how fakes infringe on Indigenous traditions.

A “crest” pole can depict wolves, ravens and grizzlies, but those are clans, and a family’s story and history is told through it. It may also contain other designs that have their own cultural connotations. Together, these elements form a canon, or set of rules, that connects the family to the story the figures tell, she says, but fakes don’t show any of this.

“When you take a pole and when you randomly put animals on that pole and randomly place them, they have no meaning,” she says.

“That meaning is what makes it authentic,” she continues. “That cultural tradition is what makes it authentic.”

“The forms of Northwest Coast Indigenous art, that is the canon,” she explains. “The canon also is that connection to the clans, that connection to the families, that connection to the lands, and the connection to the stories of the land and the stories of the peoples.

“You can’t really separate those two things,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s just copy art. It’s copy art without context.”

Indigenous artwork also evolves as the artist’s experiences and materials change, she notes. But fakes don’t evolve. “It’s an evolving form, and when you take something and you copy it based on what you think that the tradition is, that’s not an evolving form, and that’s offensive to the practice,” Collins says.

“It’s offensive to the practice to be put into this pseudo-primitive context.”

Worse than not depicting the essence of Indigenous art, is that the fakes perpetuate stereotypes, like the Indigenous person donning a feathered headdress, Collins says. Fakes are empty, created with no context, yet displayed as Indigenous art.

It’s completely taken out of its context and its tradition and displayed as something that we’re supposed to accept as Indigenous art, but it really isn’t,” she says.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with it because there’s no context, and without that context, it can’t be authentic.”

‘The worst replicas around’

Squamish Nation member Julie Peters has worked for Spirit Works Limited for more than a decade. She intricately inlays abalone into the pieces she helps make. “Everything I do here, I’ve learned from Shain,” she says.

She, too, frequently sees fake Indigenous artwork, such as imitation bentwood boxes sold in stores. But her criticism of these fake pieces is more personal.

Squamish First Nation member Julie Peters displays a pendant she placed abalone in for Spirit Works Limited, where she has worked for more than a decade.

Peters’ mother-in-law is a master knitter who hand-makes Cowichan sweaters, a distinctive style of heavy wool sweater made by the Cowichan First Nation weavers on southern Vancouver Island. But non-Indigenous businesses mass-produce fake versions of the sweaters and sell them for cheap.

You can tell a fake sweater from a real one, she says, but people still choose to buy the cheaper fakes. “Those are, absolutely, not made by Aboriginal people, First Nations people, but we always wear them.

And that’s financially damaging to her mother-in-law, she says — “if she can’t sell it because stores don’t want it no more, when they can just go get it from a different store as a cheaper knockoff.”

At a Commercial Drive cafe, between sips of coffee, Indigenous artist Jerry Whitehead says fake Indigenous totem poles — which he likens to plastic play toys — “are the worst replicas around.”

They don’t reflect the amount of work authentic Indigenous artists put into creating the real ones, he says.

“I don’t know how people could take them home and say, ‘Oh, they bought a little totem pole.’ Don’t they see the real thing around?” he asks. “How could people do stuff like this?”

“To see them in a small scale and in this cheesy looking — it’s not right,” he says.

An acrylic painter, Whitehead’s art isn’t easily replicable. But he sees other Indigenous art that people attempt to replicate on a regular basis. Whitehead says B.C. in particular is bad for selling fake West Coast-style Indigenous carvings and panels.

But fakes take away from the integrity of authentic Indigenous art, he says. “We got to keep the integrity of the piece. You got to show the best that you can in a piece of artwork.”

“This devalues some of the stuff,” he continues. “Especially if they keep replicating the same thing over and over. It just devalues the original piece.”

Jerry Whitehead stands next to a design he painted in the library at Britannia Community Centre in Vancouver.

Fakes silence artists’ voices

In a telephone interview, two-spirit artist Raven John is blunt that fake Indigenous art is a “cultural and cash grab by non-Indigenous people.”

It may be pervasive, John says, but  being constantly bombarded by images of the imaginary Indian is offensive.

Artists often use their art as a way to express ideas of social or cultural significance they can’t capture through words, John says. So, supporting fake Indigenous art has the same effect as stifling the genuine artists.

“It comes to a point where what needs to be said through the work of Indigenous folks is being ignored with the propaganda of cultural commodity and inauthentic Indigenous work,” John says.

Back in North Vancouver at Spirit Works Limited, Jackson recounts a story from his days as a lawyer that taught him that Indigenous art is a language, something that can’t be replicated by fakes.

A Shíshálh elder asked Jackson what he thought made the law he practised as a lawyer better than Shíshálh law.

Jackson told the elder about common and statutory law, criminal and civil law, and how judges listen to each person’s story to come up with a principle and reach a verdict. That principle is then carried forward to inform the next common law case, he said. It’s also codified, he added. “It’s written down. It can be passed down from generations to generations and worked with.”

The elder told him that the tribe’s artwork serves the same purpose.

Jackson realized that Indigenous art is a form of codification. “[It’s] the way we write down our history, our worldview, our laws. It really is a written language,” he says.

“I realized that we did artwork, but I didn’t realize as strongly the function of it. Obviously, it told stories but it’s very intensely sophisticated, these stories or these principles.”

Fakes are secular, devoid of the teachings that are an integral part of authentic Indigenous work, Jackson says.

Indigenous art is also about bringing people together, and that’s something the world needs right now, Jackson adds. When people buy fake Indigenous art thinking it’s real, they don’t get that message.

“If people are taking the artwork and mixing it up so that we can’t read it anymore — and our kids can’t read it anymore — it’s difficult,” he says. [end]


This story is part of a series on fake Indigenous art in the tourism industry. It was edited by Robin Perelle.


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