2 WA artists plead guilty to faking Native American heritage

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.


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