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Former Anchorage shop owner sentenced in Alaska Native art misrepresentation case

A collection of carvings at Arctic Treasures circa 2018. Some number of these were seized as evidence in a case against Lee John Screnock. (Photo provided by the Office of the Assistant U.S. Attorney General)

The former owner of a downtown Anchorage gift shop was sentenced to probation Wednesday for misrepresenting hundreds of his own carvings as being made by an Alaska Native artist, violating federal law.

Lee Screnock, 60, was first charged with misrepresentation of Indian produced goods and products and violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 2018. The charges against stemmed from Screnock’s time as the owner of Arctic Treasures, a Fourth Avenue shop that sold Alaska Native carvings and other art.

The case against Screnock represents a rare federal prosecution for “Misrepresentation of Indian Produced Goods and Products,” under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, created to protect Alaska Native and American Indian artisans from having customary artwork copied and sold as authentic by non-Native people or companies.

In Alaska, prosecutions for misrepresented art are not common. In 2016, a Skagway shopkeeper was acquitted on similar charges.

Screnock opened Arctic Treasures in the 2000s, collaborating with artists, “particularly Alaska Native artists and those who were homeless or had recently been released from incarceration and were struggling to get back on their feet,” his attorney, Gretchen Staft, wrote in a federal sentencing memorandum on his behalf.

One of those artists gave him the nickname “Savuk,” his attorney wrote.

“Mr. Screnock felt great pride in the receipt of this nickname, and he adopted the signature for his artwork,” she wrote.

Arctic Treasures circa 2018. (Photo provided by the Office of the Assistant U.S. Attorney General)

Screnock first landed on the radar of federal law enforcement when in 2015, an undercover Fish and Wildlife Service agent bought a polar bear skull from him, which violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Alexander wrote.

Undercover agents paid another visit to the Fourth Avenue retailer in 2017. The court documents contend that Screnock told one that a carving was made by Savuk, whom he described as being from Point Hope.

Signing his pieces with “Savuk” gave the impression that they were made by an Alaska Native artist, which they were not, prosecutor Adam Alexander wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

In 2018, after “explicitly” warning Screnock the practice was illegal, federal agents seized 450 art pieces, mostly walrus ivory. The total value of the pieces was $125,000, according to Alexander’s memorandum.

Federal prosecutors contend Screnock “falsely suggested the goods were Indian produced, or an Indian product, or product of a particular Indian or Indian tribe … when he had in fact carved the items himself, knowing he was not a member of any Federally recognized tribe.”

“Every sale represented to an Alaska Native artisan competing in the same market for the same customers, and a harm done to small communities statewide that depend in part on the sale of Alaska Native produced arts and crafts,” Alexander wrote.

In a sentencing memorandum, Screnock grew up an orphan in South Korea before being adopted by an American family. He had hoped to contribute positively to Alaska by offering a space for artists to work and collaborate and had been “committed to uplifting and supporting the Native artist community” but made a mistake, his attorney wrote.

His health and memory had been declining recently, and he had been dealing with family stress, Staft said at his sentencing.

Screnock was sentenced to five years’ probation, banned from selling wildlife products during that time, and ordered to pay $2,500 in restitution to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board.

The final sentence included five years of probation, a ban on selling wildlife products during that time, and a $2,500 restitution payment and apology letter to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board.

The former Arctic Treasures is now owned by an Inupiaq artist from Point Hope who has built the shop into a thriving collective for Alaska Native artists.

Leon Kinneeveauk purchased the business from Screnock in 2018.

“John gave me the opportunity to purchase his business which was a dream come true,” he wrote in a letter to Judge Sharon Gleason included in the sentencing memorandum. “I have since built the program to provide space for 20 carvers who struggle with addiction, homelessness and reentry from incarceration.”

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