The proposed Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act, HR 2930 and SB 1471, would bridge existing domestic and international law to prevent the export and help facilitate the international repatriation of tribal cultural heritage items. Tribes have long encountered the trafficking of items from our communities essential to our cultural practices. Many dealers know that once these items are exported abroad, they are out of our reach.
Recently, the Authentic Tribal Art Dealers Association submitted to The Santa Fe New Mexican a horribly distorted description of the STOP Act. The dealers association hides behind alleged concerns for Native artists but is truly concerned about protecting its own members’ profits. Let me assure you that, despite the dealers’ fearmongering, the sky is not falling.
Acoma Pueblo knows firsthand the difficulty of securing the international repatriation of tribal cultural heritage items, like the Acoma shield recovered from an auction in Paris. The shield’s journey highlights the shortcomings in existing federal law. Despite a federal court warrant for the shield and federal officials’ requests to France for its return, France responded that it was unable to help. It took many years, significant resources and creative thinking to bring the shield home. Not all tribes or cultural items are as fortunate.
An international treaty the United States and France signed should have paved the way for the shield’s return. To access the procedures available under the treaty, however, the United States must enact an export prohibition and certification system. Because the United States had not yet done this, France used this as its reason for not facilitating the shield’s return.
The STOP Act would build the necessary bridge between existing domestic and international law by prohibiting the export of items already subject to federal law and create an export certification system. The STOP Act would require exporters to obtain export certifications from the federal government for items meeting the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act’s “cultural item” definition or the Archaeological Resources Protection Act’s “archaeological resource” definition. If these items are already unlawful to traffic under federal law, the STOP Act would explicitly prohibit their export altogether. They would not be eligible for an export certification.
The STOP Act continues to have broad support from tribes, tribal and nontribal organizations, and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. It has been carefully developed to consider varied interests and has undergone significant vetting, including by multiple federal agencies. The STOP Act passed the Senate late last year through unanimous consent, meaning no senator objected to the bill, but time ran out for its passage by the House.
The Authentic Tribal Art Dealers Association has taken great liberties in its op-ed, including spreading allegations that are downright false. In fact, many of the provisions now included in the STOP Act have come from the dealers’ association, yet it seeks to prevent the bill’s passage.
Despite the dealers association’s bluster, the STOP Act remains a narrow bill that incorporates existing federal laws protecting tribal cultural heritage items. These long-standing laws have been affirmed by the courts.
Let me be clear: The STOP Act does not ban the export of Native American art, nor does it require such art to receive an export certification. The existing federal laws protecting cultural items and archaeological resources form the backbone of the STOP Act and do not extend to Native art made solely for commercial purposes.
Rather than harming the Native art market, as the dealers association claims, the STOP Act encourages its growth. The STOP Act would create tools for clarifying which items are already covered by federal protections. In fact, an “item made solely for commercial purposes is presumed to not qualify” as covered under the STOP Act.
Acoma, like many tribes throughout the country, has tribal artists who need support. Our last desire is to harm them. At the same time, Acoma maintains significant and ongoing cultural practices that have sustained our people for centuries. Cultural heritage items are critical to our way of life and our future. I hope the STOP Act is swiftly passed so that the glaring gaps in law are closed, not only to protect tribes, but also to create greater certainty for the Native art market.