I am quite upset to learn that a fellow going by the name Grey Owl (and I kid thee not, the irony of course being quite rich) is stealing the work of the phenomenal Métis artist, Christi Belcourt. His real name is actually Jack Walter Lamb, a gun-loving Tea Party supporter who also also loves floral beadwork. He’s had her stuff up for sale since March of this year.
On his “Ojibwae Crafts” website (which has finally been taken down by Mr. Lamb) this fraud had the nerve to claim:
We are Native American Craftsmen of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. We provide Certificates of Authenticity with tribal ID numbers, spiritual guidance and meanings with each of our pieces.
Hmm. What Certificates of Authenticity, spiritual guidance and meanings can you provide for these pieces you have stolen from Christi Belcourt’s webpage?
He was offering a print of a picture he called Tree of Life. Huh. It’s actually called “Resilience of the Flower Beadwork People”.
Oh but that isn’t all he’s trying to peddle (apparently zazzle has finally taken these down!!). Here he’s got one of Christi’s works printed on a ‘Chippewa iPhone skin‘. Here you’ve got essentially the same thing, but now it’s an ‘Ojibway Blackberry case‘. Here are some beautiful copyright violations in the form of shoes.
I wonder how much money this…entrepreneur has made off the brilliance and hard work of a native artist? I wonder what the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe thinks about this fellow not only violating copyright, but also claiming affiliation to give his theft legitimacy and possibly violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990?
Even if this fellow is a member of the Minnesota Chippewa tribe, the law nonetheless states, “It is illegal to market an art or craft item using the name of a tribe if a member, or certified Indian artisan, of that tribe did not actually create the art or craft item…products advertised as “Hopi Jewelry” would be in violation of the Act if they were produced by someone who is not a member, or certified Indian artisan, of the Hopi tribe.”
This law does not just apply to non-natives passing their work off as native art, but also attempts to prevent native artists from claiming their work (or work they have stolen as in this case) is from an aboriginal culture other than their own.
Except this really isn’t about Mr. Grey Owl. This is about a native artist, coming across her work on an online store and seeing it being passed off as someone else’s. It’s about a native artist spending an entire day trying to get that online store (zazzle.ca) to take the products down, and getting nowhere because they refuse to accept responsibility for what their users do s (if you’re not suspicious yet about the other ‘Native American artwork’ up there, you should be). It’s about the time and effort she is going to have to expend to protect her work, and the worry she is going to have about this happening again in the future.
Christi is pursuing legal action through CARFAC (Canadian Artists Representation/ Le Front des Artistes Canadiens), but other native artists have been sharing their horror stories of copyright infringement as well, and it’s clear this is not an isolated incident. I realise this happens to artists of all backgrounds, but the way in which these pieces are passed off as belonging to different aboriginal groups (all at the same time), along with made-up ‘spiritual guidance’ under the guise of being “Real Authentic Indian Stuff!” is particularly offensive to me. It is misleading, and it is exploitative. Not only of the artist herself, but also of consumers who understandably would be delighted with the images she has created, but who would be led to believe that they belonged to someone else, meant something else, came from somewhere else.
I feature a piece of one of her works on this page because she is a person of singular and important talent. She has done so much to revitalise our traditions, to learn our medicines and to pass along her knowledge. This kind of theft undoes the education she is engaged in.
I urge people to be very, very careful about ‘real authentic Indian stuff’. Please, find out where it is made, and who the artist is. Dig deeper than a printed ‘Certificate of Authenticity’ or a web-page assurance.
A few months ago, I bought a Cree tamarack decoy when I was staying at a hotel in Val d’Or. They are beautiful, they smell great, and I liked that they represent a different tradition from the Cree back home. To me, they are a symbol of our diversity. I made a point of tracking down the craftsman, finding out his name and the community he is from, before I purchased it.
Please do the same before you buy something that is supposedly a native craft. It would help greatly in stopping people like this whose only talent appears to be theft and lies.
For the native artists out there…this may be a good lesson for you. (I realised after that this seems like I’m wagging my finger at you like you did something wrong…not my intent!) It would be great to have a discussion about what you can do to protect yourself from this sort of theft.
Sending a Take-Down notice
I’ve had a friend who is a graphic designer explain that if the offending website is based in the US, you can send a DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) take-down notice. This website explains how you can do this yourself. The site is required to take the content down until the person implicated can prove it is theirs.
You shouldn’t have to incur attorney fees just to protect your intellectual property. This step can at least give you some direct power over protecting your work. As more information becomes available, I’ll update:)
Update (Dec.10) email from Jack Lamb:
“Ok, I think I have all the images deleted, contacted zazzle to have any products deleted. I will make CERTAIN that any reference or any use of those beadwork pictures are deleted from any site, file, etc that I have. I cannot access the ojibwaecrafts site right now. When I can the same will be deleted as soon as possible. As I think I stated previously I found those on a search of a .edu site looking for HISTORIC ojibway art. I will make sure that anything is researched more completely from here on out. My sincere apologies to the artist!! If you find any such image out there let me know and I will do anything I can to help out. I understand completely. I had not obscured the image or changed the sig. I worked on the colors and then sharpened and merged it to make more of a pattern. Obviously, not the right thing to do with anothers work. I think I have it all down. Will do better research! Again, if you find anything, just contact me for help.” – Jack Lamb
Follow up (Dec. 11)
Jack Lamb has, as you can see above and in the comments below, indicated that the entire issue was based on believing the pieces in question were ‘historic’ pieces of art, thus likely ‘in the public domain’. Without any opinion on whether his statements are true or not, it brings up an interesting issue of the anonimity of aboriginal artists, and the status of ‘historic’ art.
I mentioned earlier how important it is for consumers to be more diligent in finding out where their art is coming from, but that caution clearly needs to be applied to others who wish to make derivative pieces as well.
I can go to a museum and see gorgeous pieces of Mi’gmaq beading for example. Sometimes the artist is identified, and at other times the museum does not know who produced the piece. Because of the age of the piece, the art represented is basically ‘in the public domain’ (free to use) according to Canadian law.
This approach completely ignores cultural or communal ownership. Certainly we need to have discussions on what we would like to see change about that.
To me, there are a few things that are extremely important even absent that ‘big’ discussion about rights and laws and protections. One would be proper attribution. “Mi’gmaq” is still too broad. Was it truly impossible to find out where a particular piece was produced, or did the curators simply lack the resources to delve deeper? I would ask the same of those people finding ‘historic’ art and using them for derivative works.
The second is also about attribution, but in a broader sense. Identifying something as “Ojibway” simply because that is how someone previously identified it, may have you showcasing a piece that was actually representative of another people’s beadwork. Clearly more research is needed than just taking someone else’s word for it.
The third would be determining whether it is appropriate at all, regardless of intellectual property laws, to take a ‘historic’ piece and profit from it in the first place. I think that ties back into that ‘big’ discussion, and is one that really needs to be fleshed out.
The decision to pursue this further or not is entirely Christi Belcourt’s. The discussion this event has sparked is both interesting, and incredibly important.