As It Happens

Alaska gift shops busted for allegedly selling fake indigenous art

Many gift shops in Alaska claim their wares were created by local indigenous artists. But U.S. federal prosecutors say some store owners are lying to tourists and selling them fakes.
A bone carving purchased by an undercover U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent in the prosecution of southeast Alaska shop owners in Juneau, Alaska. Rosita Worl is the president of Sealaska Heritage Institute. (U.S FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE VIA AP)
Listen6:04

When tourists step off cruise ships in Alaska, they're often surrounded by gift shops selling local indigenous art. But American authorities are now warning customers to be on the lookout for fakes.

Charges were laid recently against owners at four different gift shops for falsely claiming some of the art they sold was made by Alaskan indigenous artists. 

Rosita Worl is the president of Sealaska Heritage Institute and an advocate for indigenous Alaskan artists. She told As It Happens host Helen Mann, it was about time that charges were laid.

"It's been a practice that we've been concerned about [for years]," Worl says. 

An Inuksuk mammoth ivory carving sold at a gift shop in Ketchikan, Alaska. It was carved by Chupak, a Cambodian artist based in Alaska.

She began to hear about the problem nearly 20 years ago.

"I had artists coming into my office saying, 'Rosita, we're not able to sell our art anymore.' So I went down and started looking at the shops and was amazed at the amount of art that was coming from overseas," Worl says.

She believes much of the art is actually made in countries like Indonesia and sold in Alaska gift shops for hundreds of dollars. When U.S. federal prosecutors were in Alaska recently, they discovered shops selling whale and walrus bone carvings for $1,000 or more and falsely claiming they were made by local indigenous artists.

I had artists coming into my office saying, 'Rosita, we're not able to sell our art anymore.' - Rosita Worl

"In Alaska, we supposedly have some little labels that they put on different art, to say it's 'Native made' or 'Made in Alaska.' But what happens a lot is that the stickers are put on over the 'Made in Indonesia' label," Worl says.

She says the practice isn't just harmful to tourists visiting Alaska gift shops. It's also harming indigenous artists who depend on the arts and crafts industry.

A cruise ship heads towards Alaska. Local shops claiming to sell local indigenous art cater to cruise ship tourists. (ANDY CLARK/REUTERS)

"In our villages, we have depressed cash economies. And many of our people are dependent on traditional hunting and fishing and they offset their income with the sale of arts and crafts. For our people, it's significant," Worl says.

Worl is glad that law enforcement is trying to crack down on fraudulent gift shop sales. But she's also skeptical it will lead to real change for the state's indigenous community.

"I know that in the past we've had these crackdowns and maybe for a while shops [were] much more careful about it. But there's not this constant surveillance. And the shops must earn so much, they think they can get away with it."

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