Protecting Sacred Objects Bill Introduced In Senate

Rick Kearns

Preventing the exportation and sale of sacred objects and creating harsher penalties for these and related crimes are the goals of the recently introduced Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act that has bipartisan and tribal support.

On July 6, United States Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) announced the introduction of the STOP Act at a press conference in Washington, D.C.

"The STOP Act will increase penalties for stealing and illegally trafficking tribal cultural patrimony. It will also prohibit exporting these objects and create a tribal working group to help federal agencies better understand the scope of the problem and how to solve it. I am proud to work with tribes in New Mexico and across Indian country to craft this legislation," said Heinrich.

The bill would increase the penalties for criminal violations of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), raising the maximum prison time to 10 years instead of five; give two years of amnesty for returning illegally acquired objects; ask the U.S. Government Accountability Office for a report on illegally trafficked objects; and form a tribal working group for implementing the report’s recommendations.

The STOP Act would also prohibit the export of any object obtained in violation of NAGPRA, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, or the Antiquities Act.

The introduction of the bill comes five weeks after a controversial sale of sacred tribal objects at the EVE Auction House in Paris, France on May 31.

While the sale of an Acoma shield was halted due to reports that it may have been stolen other sacred objects were sold at the auction despite numerous efforts by U.S. and tribal officials to stop the process and remove the contested items. (On July 28, the Office of the Attorney General of New Mexico said it was seeking a warrant for the return of the shield. The EVE Auction House and French authorities have not yet responded to the announcement.)

RELATED: Paris Auction Update: Acoma Shield Pulled, Attendance Low Amid Protests

In response to the requests, according to Heinrich and other sources, the French government “cited the lack of an explicit export prohibition as an impediment to enforcement of NAGPRA and related laws overseas.”

The STOP Act, if passed, would prohibit the sale and exportation of sacred objects and human remains. A few days after Heinrich introduced the bill Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) announced he would co-sponsor the legislation and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) also voiced support.

Tribal leaders from the Pueblo of Acoma and Navajo Nation pushed for the bills passage which was also endorsed by the Jicarilla Apache Nation, Santa Ana, Isleta, Zuni, Laguna, Nambé, Jemez, and Ohkay Owingeh as well as the All Pueblo Council of Governors, the National Congress of American Indians, and the United South and Eastern Tribes Sovereignty Protection Fund.

"We are hoping that it will begin to close the doors on the sales of these items in Europe,” said Pueblo of Acoma Governor Kurt Riley. Riley and other leaders helped Heinrich develop the STOP Act bill.

“It's very difficult once it leaves the pueblo to do anything because we don't have, oftentimes, the internal wherewithal as far as policing and investigation," Riley said.

"The Pueblo of Acoma has firsthand experience with the illegal removal and trafficking of our cultural objects and the uphill battle that comes with seeking their repatriation," Riley added.

"On behalf of the Navajo Nation Council, I would like to thank Senator Heinrich for introducing this bill. The Navajo Nation has consistently sought to repatriate sacred objects, as well as protect our sacred sites, land, culture, language, and way of life," said Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council Delegate LoRenzo Bates.

"This legislation strengthens that position and allows tribes the confidence that their traditions and way of life are surely protected," Bates stated.

Meanwhile the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs will first examine the Stop Act legislation before being introduced to the full Senate. The dates for the beginning of the process were not available at press time.

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