American Indian tribes long have known that their sacred objects and items of cultural patrimony have been showing up in art galleries, on internet sites and in auction house catalogs — often in Europe — eventually ending up in the hands of wealthy international collectors.

In the last year, at least 24 items of Acoma Pueblo cultural patrimony were illegally removed from the reservation and offered for sale, according to Gov. Kurt Riley. And as recently as May, the governor was forced to plead with public officials and even call on the people of France to stop the sale of a war shield by a Paris auction house.

That time, the item was grudgingly withdrawn from the sale, but sometimes tribal officials are not successful in halting the sale of sacred objects. Sometimes they don’t even know ceremonial items are being offered to the highest bidder. Occasionally, they are forced to buy back their own cultural items.

Now the tribes might be getting some help from the federal government. On Tuesday, Democratic U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico plans to introduce a bill to help stop the theft of tribal patrimony.

The Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act of 2016 would prohibit the export of items obtained in violation of federal laws, including the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and the Antiquities Act.

The bill would increase penalties from a maximum of five years to a maximum of 10 years for violations of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The act, passed in 1990, provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return to the tribes any human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects or objects of cultural patrimony and penalizes illegal trafficking in these items.

In the U.S., it is illegal to sell ceremonial Native American items. But in other countries, such as France, it is not.

Although the Acoma war shield that was set for a May auction in Paris was over 100 years old and protected by federal law, the French government cited the lack of an explicit export prohibition for initially refusing to withdraw it from the sale. The incident spurred Heinrich to propose the bill to help stop the loss of items sacred to tribes.

“Especially in a place like New Mexico, we all recognize the incredible beauty of American Indian art — from the remnants of ancient wonders that we can explore and admire in places like Chaco Canyon and the Gila Cliff Dwellings to the traditional and modern art masterpieces created by Native artists to this day,” Heinrich said in an email.

“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,” he said. “We need to take all possible action to stop priceless Native American cultural artifacts from being sold to the highest bidder and ensure they are returned to their rightful owners.”

Besides barring exports, the bill would establish a two-year amnesty period during which people could voluntarily return to the tribes cultural objects obtained illegally.

“The idea of having a period in which items can be returned without any questions asked is very important,” said Ann Berkley Rodgers, an attorney with the Chestnut firm in Albuquerque, which is general counsel for Acoma Pueblo.

She said reputable dealers know when something cannot be sold and may have such items sitting in storage because they don’t know what to do with them. “Acoma would always say, ‘Please contact us,’ ” she said. “The tribes want the items back. And they would much prefer to have them back rather than [have them] sitting in a federal evidence locker for a year.”

The Heinrich bill directs the Government Accountability Office to write a report on the number of cultural objects involved in illegal trafficking, both in the U.S. and abroad, and include information on the number of cases prosecuted and recommendations for eliminating illegal commerce in these items. It also calls for the formation of a tribal working group to “help federal agencies better understand the scope of the problem and how to solve it,” Heinrich said.

The Navajo Nation voted last month to support Heinrich’s bill. And Jonathan Hale, a tribal official, said he is also working on new tribal laws to protect cultural patrimony and make people aware that “they can’t just come into Indian Country and take items.”

Ceremonial items, he stressed, are “not for show,” and “we don’t put them on the wall or behind glass.”

According to Hale, the tribe has in recent years had to fork out about $30,000 to repatriate two items of cultural patrimony taken from the reservation.



Historically, there was an understanding that ceremonial objects belonged to the tribe and not to individuals, but there were no written laws prohibiting removal of sensitive materials, or even inventories of the items, because “nobody ever thought of those situations happening,” Hale said.

Now it is clear that stronger laws are needed to protect the interests of future generations to ensure they know how to utilize and care for their cultural patrimony, Hale said.

Officials from the Hopi, Laguna and Santa Ana pueblos have also been involved in recovering items of cultural patrimony, although the stories are seldom reported. “If items get returned without a lot of noise, that is better for the pueblos. That’s what they prefer,” Rodgers said.

But finding these objects and repatriating them is expensive and difficult. “Many of the pueblos until recently did not have the resources,” Rodgers said.

Prior to the 1990s, the pueblos did not routinely have their own police forces. And Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement agents were spread thin from Zuni to Taos.

More recently, tribes such as Acoma have made the decision to devote resources to the return of their cultural patrimony.

Rodgers said the tribe has standing protocols with some auctioneers such as eBay where it retrieves items. And when an item “shows up in a catalog in the U.S., we work with the auction house to retrieve it,” she said.

Moreover, “Acoma is very careful that the item is clearly of cultural patrimony or sacred or protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.”

“We do this very quietly,” she said. “And we really appreciate the fact that there are major international auction sites and galleries that understand the law and work with us to repatriate items, without the extremes we had to go to” with the war shield.

Riley, who has personally recovered cultural patrimony, said in an interview Friday that at some point, the tribes realized how much was leaving the reservation — and continues to do so — and that is “why we need assistance of federal agencies.”

Just last week, he said, the tribe was informed that a woman at a storage unit was observed with items of cultural patrimony, “but we probably won’t be able to track them down.”

Sometimes the thieves are even tribal members. Riley said some have been prosecuted, and he and other Acoma officials repeatedly remind tribal members of the traditional — and unwritten — laws against selling sacred objects. He said the tribe has been working with the BIA to identify tribal members who break these laws.

Riley said officials consulted with religious leaders before using the war shield as an example of the threat to tribal patrimony. And if the bill is passed, he said, “It will be a great help to all of the tribes. This isn’t just an Acoma issue. It’s an issue for all the tribes of the U.S.”

National leaders are becoming more aware of the damage this can do to Indian culture and values. The proposed budget for the Interior Department, for example, sets aside $1 million for a cultural items unit within the division of law enforcement of the BIA. And in March, Republican Congressman Steve Pearce of New Mexico introduced a resolution calling on the federal government to work with the tribes globally to halt the practice of selling sacred cultural items.

“New Mexico is home to over 20 tribal entities that add deeply to our culture and heritage,” he said in a statement. “Fundamental to protecting this past is educating present and future generations. Items with a cultural, traditional and historical importance are essential to this education and promotion of our diverse history.”

Contact Anne Constable at 505-986-3022 or aconstable@sfnewmexican.com.

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