Tribal leaders celebrate law that bans the export of cultural tribal objects
Tribal leaders joined congressional lawmakers Wednesday to celebrate the recent signing of a federal law that bans the export of cultural tribal objects.
The Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act, or STOP Act, inspired 100 or so people, mostly from the pueblos of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation, to gather in Albuquerque. Not only does the act give them hope that cultural items looted from their lands will be returned, but that the thieves will be punished. The law also increases penalties for stealing and trafficking such objects under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
Former Gov. Kurt Riley of the Pueblo of Acoma told the group in Albuquerque of the pueblo's ceremonial shield that inspired the law.
It was stolen in the ‘70s and resurfaced at a Parisian auction house in 2015.
“Not only was it stolen, but its trafficking was also prohibited within the United States by existing laws aimed to protect the cultural heritage of tribes,” said Riley.
Several tribal leaders emphasized that these objects are not art or property. They're sacred, used in ceremonies or private traditions.
When pueblo leaders contacted the auction house, they discovered the United States didn’t have a law addressing the export of such items.
“Too often these items have been illegally removed from the traditional homelands and sold at auction houses, galleries and on the internet domestically and abroad. Once they leave our country they’ve been out of reach,” said current Acoma Gov. Randall Vicente.
The auctioning of the Acoma shield prompted Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., to begin working on legislation that would help repatriate these sacred tribal objects.
Acoma reclaimed their ceremonial shield in 2019, and leaders hope the STOP Act, which was signed into law in December, helps other tribes do the same.
“With this new law, we have taken an important step forward in halting the illegal and immoral theft of items that tribes have identified as essential and sacred pieces of their cultural heritage,” said Heinrich after the signing.
Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández of New Mexico carried the bill in the House of Representatives.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.