Author Topic: Lewis Anthony Rath & Jerry Chris Van Dyke AKA Jerry Witten  (Read 4742 times)

Offline educatedindian

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2 WA artists plead guilty to faking Native American heritage
March 2, 2023 at 6:06 pm Updated March 2, 2023 at 6:32 pm 

By Jerald Pierce
Two Western Washington artists have pleaded guilty after being charged for faking Native American heritage to sell art, despite neither having tribal enrollment or heritage.

In two separate cases, Lewis Anthony Rath, 53, of Maple Falls, and Jerry Chris Van Dyke (also known as Jerry Witten), 68, of Seattle, were charged, both in late 2021, with violations of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, a statute aimed at ridding the Indigenous arts and crafts market of counterfeits. Both men are set to be sentenced May 17.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigations, which began in February 2019, found that Van Dyke, under the name Witten, had represented himself as a Nez Perce artist when selling his artworks, despite later admitting to USFWS agents that he was not a tribal member. Carved pendants said to be based on Aleut masks were among some of his faked works. On Wednesday, Van Dyke pleaded guilty to misrepresentation of Indian produced goods and products, which can include a sentence of up to one year in prison.

“We are glad to have reached a just result with Mr. Van Dyke’s misdemeanor plea,” said Vanessa Pai-Thompson, Van Dyke’s attorney, in a statement. “Mr. Van Dyke did not commit his offenses out of greed and I look forward to sharing more about him at sentencing.”

In 2021, Van Dyke told investigators that the idea to represent his work as Native American was Matthew Steinbrueck’s, the owner of Raven’s Nest Treasure. Van Dyke sold work under the name Witten at the Pike Place Market shop, The Associated Press reported at the time. When speaking with the AP, Steinbrueck denied the claim.

When reached for comment, Pai-Thompson declined to comment further on Van Dyke’s claims or Steinbrueck’s potential involvement.
Steinbrueck could not be immediately reached for comment.

Though the eventual sentencing will be up to U.S. District Judge Tana Lin, Van Dyke and the prosecutors are recommending no prison time under Van Dyke’s plea agreement.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, an investigation into Rath, which started in May 2019, found Rath to be falsely representing himself as a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe when undercover agents purchased Rath’s artworks, including carved totem poles, masks and a necklace, from Raven’s Nest and Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. Agents executing a search warrant on Rath’s Whatcom County home and studio then found feathers from protected birds such as golden eagles and other migratory birds like hawks, jays and owls in Rath’s possession. The feathers have since been forfeited to the government.

Rath pleaded guilty to misrepresentation of Native American produced goods and products and unlawful possession of golden eagle parts, both punishable by up to one year in prison, as well as unlawful possession of migratory bird parts, which is punishable by up to six months in prison.

Reached for comment, Rath’s attorney Gregory Geist said his client is remorseful and open to doing “anything he can in the future to address the impact and harm he caused,” including participating in “a restorative justice process.”

Meridith Stanton, director of the U.S. Department of the Interior Indian Arts and Crafts Board, which is responsible for enforcing the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, said in a statement that the board is pleased to see Van Dyke and Rath “brought to justice for their roles in selling fake Indian artwork.” Stanton called cases like these critical to preserving the integrity of authentic Native American art, the economic livelihoods of Indigenous artists and the cultural heritage of the Nez Perce Tribe and San Carlos Apache Tribe.

In a statement, U.S. Attorney Nick Brown added that false claims like these can take sales away from artists working to support themselves utilizing skills and techniques handed down for generations.

“Stores and galleries need to partner with artists to ensure those artisans and craftsmen advertised as Indian artists truly have tribal status,” Brown said.