U.S. files complaint to recover Acoma war shield

This Acoma war shield was among 442 items listed in the catalog at an auction in Paris. Courtesy photo

The U.S. is seeking to recover an Acoma Pueblo war shield that came up for sale earlier this year in Paris.

The EVE auction house withdrew the shield from the May 30 sale after lobbying by the tribe and U.S. government officials, including Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. The pueblo claims the shield is part of its cultural patrimony, and was stolen in a home burglary in the 1970s and smuggled out of the country.

This week, the U.S. attorney for New Mexico filed a complaint for forfeiture, a civil action to condemn the shield to the benefit of the U.S. The defendant in the case is the shield, more specifically “Lot #68 Bouclier de Guerre.”

The sale of the shield, the complaint says, violates the Archaeological Resources Protection Act because it is over 100 years old and was removed from Native lands without permission. The U.S. is asking anyone who has a claim on the shield to notify the court, which will determine the appropriate owner. Acoma will likely request that, after forfeiture to the U.S., the shield be returned to the pueblo.

In such actions, the court, on a finding of probable cause, issues a warrant to arrest the property. In cases in which the property is outside the country, the warrant may be transmitted to an authority overseas.

Ann Berkley Rodgers, an attorney for Acoma, called the action by the U.S. attorney a “hopeful sign” and evidence that the Justice Department is interested in addressing the ongoing problem of theft of tribal patrimony. In recent years, sacred Native objects have been showing up in auction catalogs, particularly in Europe, where they eventually end up in the hands of wealthy collectors. Recovering the items is increasingly straining tribal resources.

Unwritten laws prohibit removal of items of cultural patrimony from the Acoma Pueblo.

A woman, identified as C.S. in the complaint, said photos of the shield depict the one her grandfather, an Acoma cultural practitioner, used in cultural and religious ceremonies. As caretaker of the shield, he kept it and others on a wooden shelf built into an adobe wall on the second story of his three-story adobe home on the mesa known as Sky City.

C.S., who lived in her grandparents’ home, said her grandfather prayed with these items on a daily basis.

According to C.S., the home was burglarized in the 1970s, and six of seven shields there were taken — although, there is no written record of the theft, and the Acoma Police Department did not exist at the time.

The shield is 52 centimeters in diameter — or about 20.5 inches. The front depicts a kachina with horns, its round face painted yellow, green and blue. The front and back surfaces are made of thick, tanned leather. In the photograph, the shield is adorned with feathers, which might have been added during a religious ceremony.

In 2015, the Bureau of Indian Affairs recovered a similar Acoma shield from an art gallery in Bozeman, Mont., where it was up for sale.

The sale this year violates a U.S. law that makes it a crime to transport any stolen goods worth $5,000 or more. The shield was listed for about $7,784.

The complaint says the EVE auction house has sold archaeological resources and items of cultural patrimony since at least 2009, and that the Hopi tribe, on several occasions, has challenged sales.

“EVE Auction House has long been on notice that the Native American cultural and religious items the company offers for sale were unlawfully and improperly acquired and that the persons who possess such items and offer them for sale at auction lack legitimate title to them,” the complaint says.

Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., introduced STOP, the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act, which would prohibit the export of items obtained in violation of federal laws, including the Native American Graves Protection Act, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and the Antiquities Act.

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

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