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A Native American Shield Highlights a Legal Loophole About the Export of Cultural Artifacts

The appearance of a stolen sacred shield at a Paris auction house prompted a New Mexico Senator to propose the STOP Act, which would ban the trafficking of certain cultural items outside the United States.

Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico (by Scott Catron via Wikimedia)

SANTA FE, New Mexico — On November 18, it was announced that tribal leaders from Acoma Pueblo would be welcoming home a centuries-old shield that had been stolen from their village in the 1970s. The shield turned up at Paris’s EVE auction house in 2016, at which point the Pueblo of Acoma, which is about 50 miles west of Albuquerque, notified the Department of Justice. According to the Albuquerque Journal, Acoma Pueblo Governor Brian Vallo reached out to the auction house in 2016 in an effort to get in touch with the seller and arrange the shield’s return. The auction house invited Vallo to bid on the item instead, which was expected to sell at $40,000. The Pueblo abstained from bidding on the stolen, sacred item.

Finally, over three years later, in a collaboration between the FBI’s Albuquerque office, the FBI Art Crime Team, and others, the shield has been returned. The consignor, Jerold Collings of New Mexico — who said he inherited the item and had no knowledge of its history — agreed to return it at no cost. In a press conference with KOAT-TV, Vallo expressed his community’s intentions and hopes for the shield’s return: “Now we will turn our attention to the shield, return it to […] Acoma, to allow it time to rest, and engage our community back with its protector. And in doing so, we ask the public and media for privacy.”

For those wondering: how did the shield get to France, and why did it take so long for it to finally be returned? One reason is a loophole, in which it’s illegal to traffic certain cultural items within the United States, but exporting them is not prohibited. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which was enacted in 1990, requires repatriation of sacred or culturally significant items to their respective tribes or lineal descendants. It also instituted procedures for when said items are inadvertently discovered in excavations on federal lands. However, NAGPRA does not apply internationally.

In July, Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, introduced a bill that would close this loophole, facilitate repatriation, and increase the penalties for violations of NAGPRA. Senate Bill 2165: Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act (STOP Act) has bipartisan support and is awaiting a hearing in the Indian Affairs Committee. The STOP Act was cosponsored by Republican Senator from Alaska Lisa Murkowski, and its House companion was introduced by New Mexico Democrats Ben Ray Luján and Deb Haaland, Alaska Republican Don Young, and Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole. Its items include making NAGPRA internationally applicable; explicitly prohibiting the export of sacred or culturally significant Native American items obtained in violation of NAGPRA, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, or the Antiquities Act; and increasing the maximum penalty for violations of NAGPRA.

Whitney Potter, communications director for Senator Heinrich, told Hyperallergic that Senator Heinrich began working on the STOP Act when Acoma Pueblo’s then-governor, Kurt Riley, approached him after the shield appeared on EVE auction house’s website in 2016. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that about 1,400 items of cultural significance for Native Americans were listed for auction between 2012 and 2017, and that “auction houses long stood their ground against pressure to halt bidding on kachinas, mask-like pieces and Plains war shirts, saying doing so could have broad repercussions for the art market in general.” But perhaps those repercussions are for the better. For, as Vallo said, “these are not works of art, they are communal property with great sacredness that must never leave the tribal lands.”

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