American Indian Artist Shows Courage and Principle

Peggy Fontenot continues her fight in free-speech lawsuit

American Indian artist Peggy Fontenot deserves far more respect than she gets from Steve Russell in his November 28 column on her challenge to Oklahoma’s “Indian Arts and Crafts Sales Act.”

Mr. Russell’s column is titled, “Who Is an Indian Artist?” – seeming to hint that the question has no settled answer. In fact, the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act has answered the question unequivocally: Any artist from a state- or federally recognized tribe, or person certified as an artisan by a tribe, can truthfully market his or her work as American Indian.

But Oklahoma’s restrictive law permits only artists from federally recognized tribes to market their work as “American Indian-made.” In other words, Oklahoma politicians have singled out artists from dozens of other tribes – state-recognized tribes, such as Ms. Fontenot’s Patawomeck Tribe – and prohibited them from describing their art for what it is. This violates the free speech rights of Ms. Fontenot and other disfavored American Indians, and severely hampers their ability to earn a living through their art in Oklahoma.

Mr. Russell unfairly maligns Ms. Fontenot as “a pawn in a much larger game.” No one who has met Peggy Fontenot – an award-winning, nationally renowned American Indian artist – would mistake her for anyone’s “pawn.” The reality is that by standing up for herself and her art, Ms. Fontenot is proud to enlarge the freedoms of many other American Indian artists. Pacific Legal Foundation is representing her free of charge because her lawsuit encompasses two of the organization’s signature causes: free speech and the right to earn a living.

By throwing out ill-informed questions and casting aspersions about the Patawomecks’ history, and diverting to unrelated controversies over the Equal Protection Clause and “reverse discrimination,” Mr. Russell paints the issues in this lawsuit as much more complex than they are.

Peggy Fontenot is owed congratulations, not condescending criticism, for being willing to stand up for her right to speak, and to earn a living without unconstitutional interference from the state of Oklahoma.

Caleb R. Trotter is an attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation and has the privilege of representing Ms. Fontenot.

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