December 9, 2011

Intermission: The Brutal Reality

For the past several days, I've been highlighting Native American and First Nations artists and small businesses, in hopes that people will buy directly from Native artists this holiday season. And I love focusing this blog on talented individuals (and their creativity and awesomeness), but sometimes I need to post about issues of misappropriation, misuse, and misrepresentation.

I'd rather have this entire blog focus on 'Native-produced fashion,' but in our crazy world, unacceptable things occur, and I have to post about completely ridiculous things, because completely ridiculous things occur. And, unfortunately, they occur more often than we'd like to know about.

So here's an intermission post, where I write about the ridiculousness.

Ok, so, this guy, Grey Owl (who may or may not be Native American - more on that in a second) is selling some items that look an awful lot like the artwork of Métis artist, Christi Belcourt (and by 'an awful lot' I mean 'exact replica').

Exhibit A: Christi Belcourt's artwork, The Conversation:

Exhibit B: Grey Owl's knock-off, Ojibway Blackberry Case:

So, you may argue that the Blackberry Case is kinda cool. Yea it's cool, because an artist made that design. BUT, Grey Owl isn't giving any of the money from sales to the artist. He never even asked Belcourt to use her art.

This is a problem. On multiple levels.

On one level, you are stealing from a noted artist. That's just straight illegal. You can't do that. Period. Knock it off.

On a second level, why do non-artists (and businesses and corporations) consistently try to cheat artists? (this applies to all artists, not just Native artists). This is annoying. Creativity is necessary for the continuance of our communities, and we should be supporting artists, not ripping them off.

And finally, why do people think, over and over again, that Native artists are nameless artists, and that what ever they produce is free for the taking? Oh, perhaps it's because of the effed up history of art history?- of the Western (read: white people) habits of collecting Native American/First Nations objects of aesthetic value (which involved stealing and grave robbing, let's not sugarcoat this), in which few names were recorded (and, frequently, the only fact that it was 'Native American' made it something to be 'owned'). No, the work of Native artists is not free for the taking.

Ok, let's give Grey Owl the benefit of the doubt and say that he is, as he says, "a Native American Craftsman, Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, Leech Lake Band, ID#407B008010." I mean, he did just give us his Indian ID number. Like, woah.

But, duuuuuuuddde, dude. Don't tell me that you just committed a 'red-on-red artist crime.' These offenses are highly surveillanced by an intelligent group of sassy people like myself. You are now on our radar, and not on our 'good radar.' That's just too bad for you.

Additional info, click here.

Click here to write your complaint about Grey Owl's illegal activity.

UPDATE (Dec 10, 2011):
Grey Owl removed the items from his shop. CORRECTION (from Christi Belcourt): "he claimed to have removed the images from his website, however the images were removed by Zazzle staff only at my persistent insistence after I had to jump through hoops back and forth with them to prove the artwork was mine. When that was done they sent me an email confirming they had removed the items I had listed and also notified him by email."

UPDATE (Dec 10, 2011):
Christi Belcourt is not the only artist being ripped off on Zazzle (what's up with Zazzle anyways?). Looks like the store DefinitelyMaybe is using Juane Quick-to-See Smith's War is Heck.

Exhibit A, Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith's art:

Exhibit B, War is Heck T-shirt:

Thanks to Sherry Farrell Racette for catching this (while checking to make sure her students weren't plagiarizing...)


  1. AND he's arrogated the right to de-identify this as the work of a Métis artist and inscribe it as Ojibway.

  2. Not to mention that it's flat out copyright infringement. He should cease and desist, then pay damages.

  3. I wish all copyright infringement cases were this cut and dry. Lawsuit, no problem! Just wait until some money is made and then sue him...think of it as a kind of free promotion minus some legal fees...

  4. Christi Belcourt's work is exquisite. One of her pieces was reproduced on the cover of a textbook for a class I took a while ago. It definitely inspired me to keep practicing in hopes that someday I'll develop a style of my own that is just as skilled and beautiful.

    When I started reading this I thought maybe he would try to argue that he was merely 'inspired' by her style, but nope, this is flat out copying. As Zak said, it would be nice if all infringement cases were this clear cut.

    Your statement: "And finally, why do people think, over and over again, that Native artists are nameless artists, and that what ever they produce is free for the taking?" hits on exactly what bothers me most about this kind of thing. It doesn't matter who's doing the stealing, this is just not cool.

  5. Hello Jessica,
    This is more than a problem. It's a crime and this criminal, who outrageously calls himself Grey Owl, should be held accountable for his theft of Christie's imagery.
    I hope you get an opportunity to discuss this when you are on KNBA next week.

  6. We have a big website selling regalia. The wife of a fake FL tribe's "chief" copied photos from our website & posted, trying to get orders on their website using our pics. I contacted their host (wannabes in Hot Springs AR) & told them to take it down or I would shut them down via my rights via Digital Millenium Copyright Act. It came down but they have since moved their hosting to Canada. An area pawn shop here copies every piece of regalia they can get their hands on, it's sooo frustrating.