Gov. Kurt Riley, the leader of Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, left, and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) at a press conference to announce the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act (STOP Act) on July 6, 2016. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Tribes support bill in Senate to stop the export of cultural property

A bill to stop the export of tribal property and punish those who deal in stolen items was introduced in the Senate on Wednesday to praise from Indian Country.

Tribal leaders hailed the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act, or STOP Act, as a means to address the increasingly frequent sales of their property overseas. Two auction houses in France have repeatedly sold tribal items despite strong objections from the United States.

LoRenzo Bates, the Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council, cited two instances in which sacred masks were put up for sale in France. The Navajo Nation took the unusual step of buying the items in order to return them to the communities where they belong.

"We've had to go through several ceremonies to accept them back," Bates said at a press conference on Capitol Hill.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act (STOP Act) Press Conference July 6, 2016

Gov. Kurt Riley of Acoma Pueblo said tribes have long been reluctant to discuss their stolen property out of fear that the information will drive prices up and create underground markets for the items. But the potential auction of a sacred shield, also in France, forced his people to speak out.

"We're hopeful that we eventually will get it back," Riley said.

The shield was pulled from sale after the tribe informed authorities in France that it had been stolen from the reservation in the 1970s. The STOP Act would impose prison times and fines on people who transport or export such items if it becomes law.

"It's time to return our sacred items to their rightful place, which is back in our homelands and with our people," said Denise Desiderio, the policy director for the National Congress of American Indians.

In December 2014, then-Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim led a tribal delegation to France to purchase a sacred mask that was put on the auction block. Photo by Jared King / Navajo Nation OPVP

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) introduced the bill to respond to concerns raised by authorities in France. They argued that U.S. law does not bar the export of tribal cultural patrimony, leaving them with little grounds to halt auctions, he said.

"We fix that in the STOP Act," Heinrich said of provisions that apply to tribal cultural items, archaeological resources and objects of antiquity.

First-time violators could be fined and imprisoned for up to one year if the bill becomes. Repeat offenders could face up to 10 years in prison, in addition to more fines.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) has already signed onto the STOP Act and Heinrich said he plans to line up Republican co-sponsors for the bill in the coming weeks. There is no companion in the House at this point but Rep. Steve Pearce (R-New Mexico) has introduced H.Con.Res.122, the PROTECT Patrimony Resolution, to condemn the "theft, illegal possession or sale, transfer, and export of tribal cultural items."

Some of the tribal items up for sale on May 30 at the EVE auction house in Paris, France. Included are cultural property...

Posted by Indianz.Com on Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Pearce's measure calls on the State Department, the Justice Department and the Interior Department to work together with tribes and Native religious leaders to address the issue. It also seeks a Government Accountability Office study to determine the extent of illegal trafficking in tribal cultural items, a provision that's included in the STOP Act as well.

"This is really a very large effort ... to simply say we can do better in the world and do better in this country," Pearce said at the National Museum of the American Indian in May, just days before a closely-watched auction took place in France.

Other lawmakers are taking notice too. The House Appropriations Committee is recommending $1 million for the establishment of a "Cultural Items Unit" at the Bureau of Indian Affairs to investigate violations of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and thefts of tribal property.

"Although domestic laws such as NAGPRA can be enforced to address the theft of tribal cultural items with both criminal and civil penalties, without active federal support, tribes are left only to do what they each can independently afford to do to stop the theft and sale of their cultural items," lawmakers wrote in a report accompanying H.R.5538, a fiscal year 2017 appropriations bill that is making its way through Congress.

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