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)

Federal authorities file warrant for shield stolen from Acoma Pueblo

Federal authorities are seeking the return of a sacred item that was stolen from a reservation in New Mexico some 40 years ago.

But the effort faces a big hurdle. The shield is thousands of miles away in France, held by an auction house that has repeatedly sold tribal property over the objections of Indian Country, members of Congress and the Obama administration.

Leaders of Acoma Pueblo have issued emotional pleas for the immediate return of the shield, which was made in the 1800s and was used in ceremonies up until its theft in the early 1970s. Officials in France have not heeded those calls.

By taking legal action, the Department of Justice hopes the situation will change. Documents filed in court last week make clear that the shield was taken out of the United States in violation of federal as well as tribal law.

"The ceremonial shield was stolen, taken and removed from the Pueblo of Acoma in the 1970s and transported in interstate and foreign commerce," a July 20 complaint submitted by the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Mexico reads. "The shield was smuggled out of the United States and taken to its current location in Paris, France."

The Acoma Pueblo ceremonial shield is seen here adorned with feathers. Federal experts do not believe the feathers are real eagle or turkey and were added after the fact to increase the item's sale value. Image from EVE Auction House

After being informed of the theft by the tribe and the U.S., the EVE auction house pulled the shield from a sale that took place in May. That was a victory in itself -- in the past, authorities in France have defended similar sales as legal, ethical and moral.

But with no end in sight to the auctions, which have been taking place since at least 2009, members of Congress are trying to strengthen federal laws through the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act (STOP Act). The bill would impose prison time and fines on people who sell, transport or export tribal items out of the U.S.

"The United States must do everything in its power to ensure that priceless Native American cultural artifacts are returned to their rightful homes instead of being sold off to the highest bidder," Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico), who introduced S.3127 on July 6, said in a press release last week after learning of the court action.

It's not clear how the Acoma Pueblo shield ended up in France. But the documents filed in court last week shed light into the theft, sale and transport of tribal items, which can collectively fetch millions of dollars on the auction block.

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

According to a tribal member whose grandfather was tasked with taking care of sacred and ceremonial objects at Acoma, six of seven shields were taken from a family home on reservation in the early 1970s. When shown a photograph of the item that was put up for sale by EVE, she immediately recognized it, the complaint states.

But she did not remember the feathers that can be seen in the auction house's catalog. Although the tribe sometimes uses eagle and turkey feathers in ceremonies, experts believe the feathers were added after the fact in order to bolster the shield's "authenticity" and increase its potential "value," according the complaint.

The irony is that experts from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service do not believe the attachments are real eagle or turkey feathers. That assessment is based on images from the EVE catalog, the complaint reads.

According to the complaint, a nearly identical Acoma shield was put up for sale very recently. But the outcome in that case was much more successful because the Bureau of Indian Affairs was able to retrieve it from an art gallery in Montana last year under a warrant issued in federal court. The situation in France seems to be a different story.

"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 U.S. Attorney's Office wrote.

An aerial view of Sky City, a village at Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico. Photo by Marshall Henrie

The six shields were stolen from a home at Sky City, an Acoma community known around the world for distinct qualities. The village, which dates back more than 1,200 years, is located on top of a mesa west of Albuquerque, the largest city in New Mexico.

The tribal member who grew up with the shields has not seen any of them since the theft. Under Acoma law, the items belong to the tribe and cannot be transferred to anyone without approval.

"We're hopeful that we eventually will get it back," Acoma Pueblo Gov. Kurt Riley said at a press conference on Capitol Hill last month.

With Congress out of session until September, no hearings have been held in the Senate on S.3127 or H.R.5854, the counterpart in the House.

A different measure, H.Con.Res.122, the PROTECT Patrimony Resolution, calls on Congress to condemn the "theft, illegal possession or sale, transfer, and export of tribal cultural items." 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.

Separately, H.R.5538, the fiscal year 2017 appropriations bill for the Interior Department, includes $1 million for a "Cultural Items Unit" at the BIA that would 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 the bill, which cleared the House on July 14.

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