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US Senator Introduces Bill to Stop Overseas Sales of Stolen Indigenous Objects

Pueblo of Acoma Governor Kurt Riley and Senator Martin Heinrich at the press conference for the STOP Act (courtesy the office of Senator Heinrich)
Pueblo of Acoma Governor Kurt Riley and Senator Martin Heinrich at the press conference for the STOP Act (photo courtesy the office of Senator Heinrich)

To better protect sacred indigenous objects from being sold in international markets, Senator Martin Heinrich has introduced the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act with support from politicians of both parties as well as tribal leaders. The introduction of the bill comes several months after EVE (Estimations Ventes aux Enchères) auction house in Paris went forward with a sale of disputed objects, despite protests and an emergency meeting at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Heinrich was involved in getting an Acoma shield, which was believed to have been acquired illegally, removed from the auction, yet other objects of dubious origin, including some involving human remains, were sold.

The Democratic congressman from New Mexico announced the introduction of the STOP Act at a July 6 press conference in Washington, DC, following a July 5 meeting with tribal leaders in Albuquerque. The bill would increase the penalties for criminal violations of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), with the maximum prison time becoming 10 years instead of five; give two years of amnesty for returning illegally acquired objects; ask the US Government Accountability Office for a report on illegally trafficked objects; and form a tribal working group for implementing the report’s recommendations. Perhaps most importantly, the STOP Act would prohibit the export of any object obtained in violation of NAGPRA, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, or the Antiquities Act. As stated in Heinrich’s announcement, the French government “has cited the lack of an explicit export prohibition as an impediment to enforcement of NAGPRA and related laws overseas.”

The "scalps" jacket being sold by EVE auction house (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic, via Drouot Live)
The “scalps” jacket sold by EVE auction house in May (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic, via Drouot Live)

Pueblo of Acoma Governor Kurt Riley said at the press conference that his pueblo “has firsthand experience with the illegal removal and trafficking of our cultural objects and the uphill battle that comes with seeking their repatriation.” The May auction was just the latest in a series of controversial sales at EVE going back to 2013, all of which represent the larger issue of US federal laws like NAGPRA not stopping the sales of patrimony and human remains. Another auction of Native American objects is listed on the EVE calendar for November 29, although no lots are listed as of now.

Senator John McCain of Arizona announced on July 8 that he would cosponsor the act, joining Senators Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) and Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) in their support. In a statement, Senator McCain said: “I have worked for many years to help protect these objects and keep them within the Native American community. Congress must impose stiffer penalties to stop these sacred items from being lost forever.” He’s one of the many US politicians who have sent letters condemning the auctions.

EVE has been particularly brazen with its sales and dismissive of American challenges to them. When Alain Leroy, auctioneer at EVE, was asked for comment on the May auction, he responded that “all the items proposed are of legal trade in the US and in France,” and “the public auction process allows the different tribes to acquire their past, and that is exactly what some tribes prefer to do, seeking efficiency and discretion.” The auction house even live-streamed the sale of such objects as a Lakota war shirt made in part from human hair. The STOP Act has the potential to strengthen protections for these items, many of which fell out of tribal hands during displacement in the 19th and early 20th centuries. At the least, it continues to draw attention to the disappearance of sacred culture into private hands.

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