Group sues after Indigenous artist’s designs ‘taken,’ sold in gift shop

Click to play video: 'Lawsuit alleges B.C. store stole Indigenous art design'
Lawsuit alleges B.C. store stole Indigenous art design
An Indigenous artist alleges one of his designs was plagiarized by a souvenir store in Harrison Hot Springs. As Grace Ke explains, the Indigenous art wholesaler that sells the design has filed a lawsuit against the store. – Aug 2, 2023

Native Northwest, an Indigenous wholesaler, has filed a lawsuit against Bruce and Fiona Fearon of Sasquatch Gifts & Souvenirs in Harrison Hot Springs, B.C., for “copying, using, and selling” Francis Horne Sr.’s Sasquatch design without permission.

On a trip to Harrison Hot Springs in the summer of 2022, Horne visited Sasquatch Gifts & Souvenirs.

“As soon as we stepped in the door, lo and behold, there’s my design, or what appeared to be my design,” he said in a video prepared by Native Northwest.

“I couldn’t eat after that, it literally made me sick to my stomach…. You’re mortified, you think, ‘Why would they steal this? Why would they steal my design?'”

Gabe Garfinkel, general manager of Native Northwest said, they immediately began working to have the copies removed and rectify the situation.

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When Global News called Sasquatch Gifts & Souvenirs, a woman answered, refusing to give her name, but said she was the new owner who purchased the business in November of 2022.

They decided to keep the store name and were surprised when letters began arriving.

“This is not fair for our business…. It has really hurt our business,” she said. “Bruce and Fiona are previous owners, we are not connected to them, we are brand new.”

When asked whether the T-shirts were still being sold, the woman said, “We don’t sell these T-shirts anymore, come down and take a look.”

Global News has tried to contact Bruce and Fiona but has so far not received a response.

Francis Horne Sr. designed the Sasquatch displayed on this T-shirt. Native Northwest

Indigenous art is increasingly being copied, reproduced or stolen. Earlier this year, charges were laid in an alleged art fraud ring against a group accused of making and selling pieces of art under the name of Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau.

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“Every day, Indigenous artists find their original art taken without permission and used on fake carvings, prints, T-shirts and logos,” Garfinkel said. “Authentic Indigenous art holds immense cultural significance to artists and their communities yet there are no Canadian laws that recognize this cultural value or restrict forgeries and fakes past general copyright law.”

One hundred per cent of the art featured on Native Northwest products is designed by Indigenous artists and Garfinkel said they are committed to maintaining the integrity of Indigenous art.

“We are taking legal action, because of the lack of meaningful response and that there are no Canadian laws in place to stop the theft or forging of Indigenous art,” he said. “We hope that talking about this more will deter others from Indigenous art theft.”

A lot of this theft can be found in gift shops, and an investigation done by journalist Francesca Fionda in Vancouver found that only 25 per cent of the tourist gift shops they looked at in Gastown, Chinatown, on Robson Street and on Granville Island exclusively sold authentic items.

Click to play video: '8 charged in suspected Norval Morisseau art fraud ring'
8 charged in suspected Norval Morisseau art fraud ring

“It sends a message to all Native Northwest Coast artists that we need to stand up for ourselves. We have to protect what’s rightfully ours,” Horne said.

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“It’s plagiarism, plain and simple, and it’s a mockery of what we do as artists … to know that people are taking that and making money from something that they have no right to put a claim to.”

Theft of Indigenous art is something that has long plagued Indigenous people and the Indigenous economy. And there are groups dedicated to exposing and raising awareness of Indigenous art theft.

In a Facebook group called Fraudulent Native Art Exposed there are daily posts detailing work that has been copied and stolen, whether it’s appearing in gift shops, on Etsy or through various online wholesalers.

For many Indigenous artists, fighting back against theft can be too costly and all they can do is call it out. Native Northwest hopes their case sets a precedent and helps stop this theft from happening.

Click to play video: 'Indigenous artist explains best practices when buying their work'
Indigenous artist explains best practices when buying their work

“Not only does fraudulent Indigenous art have a direct financial impact on artists who are not compensated for their designs, it also undermines and neglects the spiritual and cultural significance of each brush stroke and each design,” said Garfinkel.

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Everyone can help, especially when shopping.

“The first thing people can do is check that the design is attributed to or signed by an Indigenous artist,” said Garfinkel.

“If there is no artist name connected to the art, it’s more often than not a fake.”

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