Federal legislation to curb the sale abroad of American Indian tribal patrimony doesn’t mean that art dealers will be forced to turn over their inventories or that contemporary Native artists will not be able to sell their work.
“Let me be clear, this is absolutely not true,” Kurt Riley, governor of Acoma Pueblo, said at a press conference Friday.
The recently introduced legislation would only strengthen existing federal law and protect sacred items that have been illegally taken from tribes across the country, he said.
On the eve of Santa Fe’s annual Indian Market, the largest intertribal art market in the world, Riley said, “The Pueblo of Acoma stands in strong support of its artisans and other Native artists whose craft expresses hundreds of years of culture, values and tribal identity. However, there is a clear distinction between what is meant to be art and what is considered sacred. We wish to publicly caution art dealers who may be attempting to sell tribal antiques that are considered protected Native American cultural objects. “
Riley said that dealers and buyers uncertain as to whether items are sacred should contact the tribes.
Besides Riley, Myron Armijo, governor of Santa Ana Pueblo, and Wainwright Velarde, president-elect of the Jicarilla Apache Nation, attended a news conference at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, along with the mayor of Santa Fe and the director of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, which presents the annual Indian Market.
“This illicit trade steals our history, our culture and the legacy we leave for our future generations,” Armijo said. “Truly, it threatens our very cultural survival — our ways of being as a people and as a tribe … we — like other cultures — must be allowed to keep these objects so that we can carry on our way of life.”
The recent legislation was spurred in part when a Paris auction house tried to sell to the highest bidder a ceremonial war shield stolen in a home burglary at Acoma. Riley lobbied U.S. officials and called on the people of France to stop the sale. The auction house finally withdrew the item. The U.S. is now seeking to recover it, and Acoma hopes it will eventually be repatriated to the tribe.
The sale of the war shield and an increasing number of similar incidents prompted the state’s congressional delegation to take the lead in Congress to stop the loss of cultural patrimony. In March, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., introduced a resolution called the Protection of the Right of Tribes to Stop the Exportation of Cultural and Traditional Patrimony. A sister resolution was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., in July.
And last month New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich, also a Democrat, introduced a bill called the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act, which would prohibit the export of sacred Native American patrimony and increase penalties for illegal trafficking. A week later Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., introduced a similar bill in the House, co-sponsored by Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham of Albuquerque.
All these measures, which have drawn bipartisan support in Washington, are pending in Congress.
While the tribes support all these efforts, Riley said the proposals fueled “misinformed fear and anxiety throughout the art market about the effect of these legislative efforts.”
On Friday Riley emphasized that the proposals would not require Indian art dealers to relinquish their gallery stocks, prohibit the export of all Indian art or “prohibit the sale of art made by our own people.” Nor will tribes begin to “arbitrarily claim items as ‘sacred.’ ”
He said the legislation would only strengthen the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and the Antiquities Act, all of which have been in place for decades. Heinrich’s STOP Act, for example, only applies to items already held in violation of the existing federal statutes, Riley stressed.
Theft of tribal patrimony is an ongoing problem in Indian Country. Just two weeks ago Acoma recovered two items from a local seller with help from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And within the last few days, Riley said, the tribe met with a representative of a major international auction house that was returning an item of cultural patrimony described as significant.
This was not the auction house involved in the war shield case, said Aaron Sims, of the Chestnut Law Offices, lawyers for Acoma. In this case, he said, the person who put the item up for sale ultimately recognized that its historic and religious value outweighed any financial value.
“That’s a reflection of the kinds of transactions we would like to have,” Sims said.
But not every collector understands how priceless such items are to the tribes. And many of the items make their way to Europe, where, because of their rarity, Sims said, they can fetch two or three times what they might bring at auction in the U.S.
Sims said Friday’s press conference was held in Santa Fe, where more than 150,000 buyers are expected to gather from Aug. 16-21 to see some of the best in Indian art, because of reports of nervousness among some gallery owners and collectors about the impact of the proposed legislation.
“The pueblo wanted to comment to dispel some of these notions,” Sims said.
Contact Anne Constable at 505-986-3022 or email@example.com.