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Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990
Are You Breaking the Law?

By Susan Jennys

On November 29, 1990, the 101st U.S. Congress enacted Public Law 101-644, titled the “Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.”  Though not widely publicized, this piece of legislation will undoubtedly prove to be far reaching in its effects.  Here’s a sample of the reason.  Section 104a of Public Law 101-644 reads in part; “It is unlawful to offer or display for sale or sell any good, with or without a Government trademark, in any manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization, resident within the United States.”

Anyone who sells “Indian” type goods, whether off a rendezvous trade blanket, a sutler’s table, or a gift shop shelf, is potentially affected by this law.  This includes “casual” sales of items like dream catchers, Mandelas, beadwork and Indian-looking clothing, by buck skinners, powwow hobbyists, and other non-professional Indian lore groups (such as scouting’s Order of the Arrow), as well as “professional” living history merchants, artifact restorationists, fine art dealers, and highly skilled “repro” artisans.

Considering the fact that Native American art and the collection of it is a trendy obsession of our society, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 should be receiving national attention, but surprisingly little has been said about it.  Closer to home, when we consider the popularity of Native American portrayals in living history (with their specialized clothing, accouterments, and camp gear), and the high rate of sales of Indian-style goods by living history merchants, one would expect Public Law 101-644 to be a topic in current living history dialog.  Thus far it has not been.  It is my intention, therefore, to begin to remedy this situation in some small way by offering in the next few paragraphs a cursory look at this often complicated and delicate subject.  Please keep in mind as you read this article that I am not a lawyer, nor is this treatise to be considered legal counsel in any form.  I am merely a fellow living history student who wished to share information and concern I have encountered in my research of this subject.


Public Law 101-644 is actually built on an earlier piece of legislation enacted August 27, 1935.  Titled the “Indian Arts and Crafts Board Act,” it established a Board “of five commissioners to promote the economic welfare of Indian tribes…thought the development of arts and crafts and through the expansion of the market for such products.”  The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990” significantly expands the powers of the board, particularly in its ability “to bring civil and criminal jurisdiction over counterfeit Indian arts and crafts.”  These expanded powers were considered necessary in light of the increasing value of American Indian art, and the increasing competition in the market from non-Indian commercialized sources.  In short, Public Law 101-644 was established to better protect authentic Native American craftsmanship.


A large part of living history revolves around Native American portrayals, and/or intense interest by participants in “things native.”  There is no legislation that prohibits the production of Indian-style crafts for personal use – rather specific legislation comes into play only when these crafts become objects of sale.  Unless these crafts are actually made by Indians (enrolled members of federal or state recognized tribes), they cannot legally be sold as “Indian crafts.”


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