Identifying Arts and Crafts Made by Alaska Natives
Art and craft items made after 1935 that are marketed as "Indian," "Native American," or "Alaska Native,” or with the name of a tribe, must have been made by a member of an officially-recognized Indian tribe (including an Alaska Native Corporation), or by a tribally-certified non-member Indian artisan. That’s the law.
For example, to advertise “Tlingit Carvings,” the carvings must be made by someone who is either a member of the Tlingit tribe or a descendant of a Tlingit tribal member and certified in writing by the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska as a non-member artisan.
Watch for qualifiers like "ancestry," "descent," and "heritage." When used in connection with "Indian," "Alaska Native," or the name of a particular Indian tribe, these words may mean the craftsperson is neither an enrolled member of an Indian tribe nor a non-member artist certified by a tribe.
Alaska Native arts and crafts are sold online and in person through tourist stores, gift shops, art galleries, museums, and cultural centers. Here are some ways to shop wisely:
- Get written proof of any claims the seller makes about the authenticity of the art or craft item you're buying.
- Ask if your item comes with a certification tag. Some Alaska Native artists attach an Alaska State “Silver Hand” tag to make it easier to identify authentic Alaska Native handicrafts. You may also see items with a “Made in Alaska” emblem. This emblem certifies that the article was made in Alaska, though not necessarily by an Alaska Native.
- Get a receipt with the vital information about your purchase. For example, if a salesperson explains the basket you're buying is baleen and walrus ivory and handmade by an Inupiaq artist, make sure that information is included on your receipt.
- If buying online, confirm the seller’s physical address and phone number in case you have questions or problems. Check purchase terms, including shipping and handling, refund polices, and delivery date.
- Pay by credit card, whenever possible. When you do, you’ll have more protection if something goes wrong or there’s a dispute about the authenticity of your purchase. If you can’t work it out with the seller, the law lets you dispute the charges, under some circumstances, and withhold payment while the dispute is investigated.
It can be hard to tell arts and crafts produced by Alaska Natives from items that are imitations. Price, traditional materials, and appearance provide important clues.
- Price — Genuine Alaska Native art or craft items should reflect quality of craftsmanship, harmony of design, and the background of the artist, and they can be expensive.
- Type of materials — Materials used by Alaska Native artists include walrus ivory, soapstone, bone, alabaster, animal furs and skin, and baleen. Only Alaska Natives are permitted by federal law to create authentic Native art, handicrafts, and clothing from walrus ivory, baleen, whalebone, or other marine mammal materials taken after December 20, 1972. But anyone can buy, sell, and own authentic Alaska Native art, handicrafts, and clothing that incorporates or is made from marine mammal materials, if the materials are significantly altered from their natural state.
- Appearance — If buying in person, physically examine a piece before purchasing it. Some items that appear to be soapstone carvings may actually be made of resin. Real stone is cool to the touch, while plastic is warm. Stone also tends to be heavier than plastic. A figure that is presented as hand-carved probably isn't if you see or can order 10 more like it that are perfectly uniform or lack surface variations.
Alaska Native Carvings
Sculptures and carvings by Alaska Natives vary in size, and often portray animals or people. Before you buy a carving, learn about mediums artists commonly use. That knowledge can help you authenticate a work.
Ivory from Alaska is a popular and expensive medium used by Alaska Native carvers. Walrus ivory can have “breathing cracks” or thin black lines that occur naturally, and may darken with age. Mammoth or mastodon ivory, which is rare and more expensive, may be used by Alaska Natives and non-Alaska Natives alike. Due to natural variations in walrus, mammoth, and mastodon ivory, no two carvings have the same pattern of color. Ivory may also be etched or engraved with pictorial scenes to portray stories from the artist’s unique culture, used in jewelry, and incorporated into other Alaska Native artwork.
Marine mammal bone, from whales and other marine animals, is used to create Alaska Native carvings and masks. Bone masks are made from the vertebrae or disk of whales, and range in color from light tan to dark brown. Bone items are lighter and more porous than ivory, and tend to be less expensive.
Alaska Native artists also produce baskets, dolls, and prints from a range of material.
Baleen, a flexible material from the jaw of baleen whales, is used to weave baskets. Baleen baskets feature an ivory starter piece on the basket base and a carved ivory finial on the top of the basket lid. Baleen can also be decorated with etching, incorporated as a decorative motif in ivory carvings and jewelry, and used to make miniature ships and dioramas.
Alaska Native dolls reflect unique styles, and may depict traditional activities, such as berry picking, hunting, fishing, dancing, and basket weaving. Doll clothes and bodies may be made from a variety of materials, including cloth fabric, fish skins, calfskin, reindeer horn, and arctic rabbit, musk ox, wolverine, beaver, badger, or wolf fur. Other doll materials include sea otter, seal, and ivory and baleen inlay for eyes. Sun bleached, dried marine mammal intestine, which is white or slightly yellowed and looks like wax paper, is sometimes used for clothing.
Get More Information
These organizations have information about Alaska Native arts and crafts:
- Anchorage Museum Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center
- University of Alaska Museum of the North
- Indian Arts and Crafts Board
Alaska State Council on the Arts
161 Klevin Street, Suite 102
Anchorage, AK 99508-1506
Phone: 907-269-6610 | Toll-free: 1-888-278-7424
Fax: 907-269-6601 | TTY: 1-800-770-8973
If you have a problem with an Alaska Native-made art or craft item, try to resolve it with the seller first. If you’re not satisfied, report it to
- The Federal Trade Commission at Reportfraud.ftc.gov
- The Alaska Attorney General's Office, or call the Consumer Protection Unit at 907-269-5200 or 1-888-576-2529 (toll-free outside Anchorage)
- The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Indian Arts and Crafts Board, or call 1-888-ART-FAKE (toll free)