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We all are customers. Regardless of where we come from or whether we are shopping for Firestone tires, dolphin-free tuna or a Native-carved totem, we deserve to be told the truth.
Customers who are not told the truth are cheated. The monetary loss may be small but no amount of loss to deceit is acceptable. On a carnival midway, we take the barkers' claims with a grain of salt. Juneau is not a carnival midway. Shoppers seeking Native art should not be expected to pay their money and take their chances.
The Empire's thoroughly documented article about misrepresentation of the art offered for sale in some downtown tourist shops originated with the frustration one shopkeeper shared several weeks ago with a reporter. The merchant explained that she stocks genuine, Native-made art works, the authenticity of which is reflected in the price of the items. She had grown weary of tourists asking why her goods cost so much when they could buy the same thing just up the street for hundreds of dollars less.
The problem, she explained to the tourists and to us, is that some of her competitors are cheating. Some shops import assembly-line knock-offs intended to look like Alaska Native art, she asserted. Those items then become co-mingled with Native-made pieces. The silent display of the goods creates an erroneous impression. The more serious transgressions involve removing or covering labels that identify country of origin or just plain lying about where the artworks were made and who made them.
Check for yourself, the merchant suggested.
We did. Three reporters and repeated visits to 26 shops confirmed the scenario laid out by the downtown merchant. Not all shops sell Native art; not all shops that sell Native art practice misrepresentation. About half of the shops our reporters visited were refreshingly up front; about half dissembled.
If you are a merchant whose store sells art, you have choices: You can label and describe the authenticity and origin of your products accurately or you can rationalize deception as something you are forced to do because of your competitors. You can blame your sales staff's lack of expertise or you can train sales clerks to know the difference between Silver Hand certification and Made in China labels. You can police the competition and promote enforcement of truth-in-labeling laws or you can turn a blind eye.
As always, some people will prefer to slay the messenger who delivers the bad news. We're optimistic the problems that accompany misrepresentation will be recognized and those in a position to make a difference will do what's right.
The hundreds of thousands of people who annually visit and shop in Juneau should know our town as a place of fair prices and full disclosure.