Bill makes illegal the export of US Native artifacts

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

The U.S. Senate this week unanimously passed a bill that would ban the export of Native American cultural objects and other artifacts that were illegally obtained and increase related criminal penalties.

The bill cleared the House after Sen. Martin Heinrich, DN.M., took the floor and said the bill would help the Pueblo of Acoma’s long-standing efforts to prevent the sacred shield, missing for decades, from being sold at auction in Paris, France.

The tribe learned the shield was auctioned in 2016. The shield was voluntarily returned in 2019.

“The need for this legislation is pretty straightforward,” Heinrich said. “Intensive public outcry and diplomatic pressure were enough to stop the illegal sale of the tribe’s cultural heritage.”

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Brian Vallo, the former governor of Acoma Pueblo, said he was grateful the bill, titled the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony, or STOP Act, passed the Senate.

Vallo said the bill would make it easier for the pueblo to get the shield back from the auction house, which has been a long-standing battle. He said it was returned only after advocates and other tribes worked with the Acoma to campaign for its return.

Vallo also met with the sender and convinced the person to return the shield.

“I think it will also really send a strong message to collectors who engage in this type of illegal activity, both in the United States and elsewhere, that we will no longer tolerate it,” he said.

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The legislation partially increases the maximum prison sentence from five to ten years for someone convicted of selling, buying, using for profit or transporting human remains or certain cultural objects that have been illegally obtained. It also adds civil penalties for similar acts and makes it a criminal offense to export illegally obtained tribal items.

The bill was passed by Parliament last year with 364 votes to 57. It will now be headed to President Biden’s desk during this week’s White House Tribal Nations Summit.

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All five members of the state congressional delegation supported the measure. Representative Teresa Leger Fernández, DN.M., sponsored the bill.

“While the United States has passed domestic legislation to help other countries protect their cultural property, until the STOP Act we did not have a law to stop the export of Native American heritage. Nowhere is this more clear than the stolen shield of the Pueblo of Acoma,” she said in a statement. “The STOP Act will specifically prohibit the export of illegally acquired tribal cultural items and better facilitate their return if found abroad.”


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