COMMENTARY: Earlier this year, when looking through a list of tribal artifacts up for bid at an art auction house in Paris, the Pueblo of Acoma discovered that the Acoma shield, a sacred ceremonial object, had been stolen and was about to be sold to the highest bidder.
After Acoma Gov. Kurt Riley notified me, I wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging the U.S. State Department to take all possible action to help repatriate the shield and other stolen cultural items to American Indian tribes. Thankfully, in that particular case, intense public outcry and diplomatic pressure were enough to postpone the illegal sale of a tribe’s cultural patrimony.
In July, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it is seeking a warrant to retrieve the shield from France.
This is welcome news, but it never should have come to that. And in hundreds of other cases, tribes across the nation have been unable to stop similar theft and sale of their priceless religious and cultural items in international markets.
Under federal law, it is a crime to steal and sell these types of Native American cultural objects. Unfortunately, the penalties in the Antiquities Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act are not as high as other similar statutes, like the National Stolen Property Act. Prosecutions are too infrequent to deter criminals from smuggling and selling these objects. And there is no explicit ban on exporting these items to foreign countries, where they might be sold at auction.
That’s why I introduced the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act. My legislation will increase penalties for stealing and illegally trafficking tribal cultural patrimony. It will also prohibit exporting these objects and create a tribal working group to help federal agencies better understand the scope of the problem and how to solve it.
While improving federal law to create a stronger legal deterrence, we also need to change the hearts and minds of art collectors and dealers who are engaging in it. That’s why the bill includes an immunity period for collectors who may have illegal items in their possession to voluntarily repatriate those items to the tribe they belong to without the threat of prosecution.
I am proud of my work with tribes in New Mexico and across Indian Country to craft this legislation. The Navajo Nation’s Naa’bik’íyáti’ Committee passed a resolution to support the STOP Act. I joined tribal leaders at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque and on Capitol Hill to unveil the details of the legislation.
The bill has been endorsed by the Jicarilla Apache Nation, the pueblos of Acoma, Santa Ana, Isleta, Zuni, Laguna, Nambe, Jemez and Ohkay Owingeh, as well as the All Pueblo Council of Governors, the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council, the National Congress of American Indians, and the United South and Eastern Tribes Sovereignty Protection Fund.
I’m also proud to welcome growing bipartisan support for my legislation in the Senate. U.S. Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.; Tom Udall, D-N.M.; John McCain, R-Ariz.; Jon Tester, D-Mont.; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; and Steve Daines, R-Mont.; all signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.
Especially in a place like New Mexico, we all recognize the incredible beauty of American Indian art — from the traditional and modern art masterpieces created by Native artists that we see at Santa Fe’s Indian Market to the remnants of ancient wonders that we can explore and admire in places like Chaco Canyon and the Gila Cliff Dwellings. But we can also recognize a clear difference between supporting tribal artists or collecting artifacts ethically and legally as opposed to dealing or exporting items that tribes have identified as essential and sacred pieces of their cultural heritage.
We need to take all possible action to stop the latter and help repatriate stolen culturally significant items to their rightful owners.
Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, represents New Mexico in the U.S. Senate.