President Roosevelt signed the Indian Arts and Crafts Act into law on August 27, 1935 . The law had the “three fold purpose of educating the Indian craftsman in modern commercial methods, of expanding the market for Indian goods, and of protecting both the consumer and the Indian producer from cheaply imitated wares” . The law also created the Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB). John Collier, the commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, served as chair of the IACB during the New Deal years.
The Department of the Interior (DOI) early-on recognized that, “One of the characteristics of the American Indian is his [sic] outstanding ability as a craftsman” . With this in mind, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes promoted a study of American Indian arts and crafts, and the results of the study helped convince Congress to pass the protective act . The DOI believed that the enhanced marketing of genuine native arts and crafts could be part of the overall effort to improve the economic situation of various tribes.
Perhaps the main problem that the Indian Arts and Craft Act and the IACB sought to end was the selling of counterfeit American Indian products. The law called for a fine of up to $2,000 and/or imprisonment of up to six months for knowingly doing so . In 1937, the DOI reported: “With the aid of the United States district attorney of the territory involved, the use of misleading labels on one type of imitation Indian jewelry has been stopped… Two cases of false newspaper advertising have been referred to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for appropriate action” . The IACB, meanwhile, worked on a system of trademarks. During fiscal year 1938 the IACB created “a system for the marking—to prove authenticity and quality—of Navajo, Hopi, and Pueblo silver, and of Navajo textiles” .
To facilitate the wider exposure of American Indian arts and crafts, the DOI and the IACB showcased the artwork at various events and exhibitions, including the Texas Centennial Exhibition, Great Lakes Exposition, Paris World’s Fair, and Golden Gate International Exposition . They also collaborated with the Museum of Modern Art on a 1941 publication Indian Art of the United States. In a foreword to the book, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: “In appraising the Indian’s past and present achievements, we realize not only that his heritage constitutes part of the artistic and spiritual wealth of this country, but also that the Indian people of today have a contribution to make toward the America of the future” .
By 1938, the annual income from American Indian arts & crafts was $863,267, and a year later it was estimated to be about $1,000,000 (in 2015 dollars, about $14.6 and $17 million). While this was only 2-3% of their total income, it allowed some American Indian artists and craft workers to become self-sufficient, and allowed others to earn much-needed supplemental income .
The IACB is still an active agency today, performing many of the same functions it always has, and it now also operates museums in South Dakota, Montana, and Oklahoma . However, according to attorney Gabriel Galanda, of the law firm Galanda Broadman, the digital age has created new and serious challenges in terms of counterfeit products and legal enforcement .
Sources: (1) James S. Olson (ed.), Historical Dictionary of the New Deal, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985, p. 259. (2) Secretary of the Interior, Annual Report of the Department of the Interior, 1940, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. 1940, p. 394. (3) Secretary of the Interior, Annual Report of the Department of the Interior, 1937, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1937, p. 224. (4) See note 1. (5) “Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1935,” U.S. Department of the Interior, Indian Arts and Crafts Board, accessed December 20, 2016. (6) See note 3. (7) Secretary of the Interior, Annual Report of the Department of the Interior, 1938, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1938, p. 234. (8) Annual reports of the Department of the Interior, 1936-1940. (9) Frederic H. Douglas and Rene d’Harnoncourt, Indian Art of the United States, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1941, p. 8. (10) Annual reports of the Department of the Interior, 1939 (p. 45) and 1940 (p. 396). (11) “Our Museums,” U.S. Department of the Interior, Indian Arts and Crafts Board, accessed December 21, 2016. (12) “Reinvigorating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act,” Indian Country Media Network, May 12, 2016, accessed December 21, 2016.