As a curator and anthropologist studying Alaska Native art, I'm writing in response to Riley Woodford's excellent article (appearing in the Fairbanks News-Miner Sept. 18) about the problem of gift shops passing off cheap replications of Alaska Native art as the real thing.
Given the current downturns in fish stocks in rural Alaska as well as diminishing employment opportunities in these areas, the sale of Alaska Native art is one of the few a reliable sources of income and the only "Alaska Native" way of funding the mixed cash-and-subsistence economy in the villages. Thus flooding the market with knockoffs is especially critical today.
The Native arts community has long been aware of this problem, and state and federal agencies attempted to deal with it right along. The most recent and effective effort is the Silver Hand program administered by the Alaska State Council on the Arts. Informed customers can distinguish authentic Alaska Native art by the presence-absence of the Silver Hand sticker, which guarantees authenticity.
One drawback of the Silver Hand program is that most consumers of Alaska Native art are tourists, who are unaware of the program's existence. I thought your readers might like to know that the University of Alaska has submitted a grant proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts that addresses this shortcoming. If funded the grant will cover the costs of producing and distributing an informational video for tourists about Alaska Native art. Among other topics it will educate Alaska's visitors about the issue of authenticity and acquaint them with the Silver Hand program. The video, which has been endorsed by Sen. Stevens, will feature four contemporary Alaska Native artists and will be distributed free of charge to hotels and tour ships for viewing on closed-channel TV; it will also be used in interpretive programs in Alaska's national parks. We are confident that it will go a long way in addressing the very real problem Mr. Woodford sets out in his article.
Molly Lee, Ph.D.,
Curator of Ethnology and Archaeology, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Alaska Museum