Tribal leaders testify at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs field hearing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on October 18, 2016. From left: Governor Kurt Riley of Acoma Pueblo Governor Eddie Paul Torres of Isleta Pueblo, President Russell Begaye of the Navajo Nation. Photo: Senator Tom Udall

Tribes seek greater protections for sacred and cultural property

Tribal leaders are calling on the federal government to do more to prevent their sacred property from being sold to the highest bidder.

Tribes have become increasingly alarmed as auction houses around the world have put hundreds of items up for sale. Due to legal, financial, political and cultural barriers, they say it's incredibly difficult to them to recover what's rightfully theirs.

"Money is attached to everything," Governor Eddie Paul Torres of Isleta Pueblo said at a Congressional field hearing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Tuesday. "Even if it was stolen from a house, it was sold and somebody paid for it."

"When sacred objects are found," Torres continued, "you've got to figure out a way to get them without putting up that red flag. Because if you don't, it's going to disappear and you'll never see it again."

Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), at podium, and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) discussed efforts to protect tribal property at a press conference prior to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs field hearing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on October 18, 2016. Photo by Tara Gatewood

But even when law and politics are on their side, tribes face incredible hurdles. Acoma Pueblo, another New Mexico tribe, has been pleading with authorities in France to return a sacred shield that was stolen from the reservation in the 1970s.

"The Acoma shield belongs to the people of Acoma," Governor Kurt Riley said of an item that remains in legal and diplomatic limbo thousands of miles away. "Inherently, it belongs to us."

The Navajo Nation has taken the drastic step of sending leaders to France to reacquire sacred items. But those efforts come with significant drawbacks because collectors and dealers start demanding more money, President Russell Begaye said.

"These sacred objects are not to be studied, hung on walls to be admired or cataloged and placed in storage bins in annexes across the world," Begaye told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. "They were and are constructed to maintain our sacredness and the wholeness of our people."

Indianz.Com on YouTube: Legislative Efforts to Protect Tribal Cultural Patrimony (Video by Tara Gatewood)

Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), a member of the committee, chaired the field hearing as lawmakers from both parties take greater notice of the problem. He's sponsoring S.Con.Res.49, otherwise known as the PROTECT Patrimony Resolution, which calls on the federal government to work more closely with tribes to stop the theft, sale and export of tribal items and to return them to their rightful owners.

"Some people are exploiting the loopholes in our current laws -- laws that are meant to stop the theft of important cultural items," Udall said at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in downtown Albuquerque. "And they have exported deeply important sacred objects to other countries to be sold as art."

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) also attended the hearing. He's sponsoring another bill -- S.3127, the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act (STOP Act) -- that would increase penalties for people who traffic in tribal property.

"While we must improve federal law to create a stronger legal deterrence, we also need to change the hearts and minds of art collectors and dealers who are engaging in it," Heinrich said.

Dealing or exporting items that tribes have identified as essential and sacred pieces of their cultural heritage must be...

Posted by Senator Martin Heinrich on Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Senator Martin Heinrich on Facebook: Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act (#StopAct)

The hearing, though, took a bizarre turn when a non-Indian professor presented boxes containing what he said were sacred items to the tribes. In his testimony, he urged lawmakers not to take a "punitive" approach when it comes to collectors and dealers.

But tribal leaders were clearly disturbed by the gesture due to the unknown origin of the items. They appeared to be stored in cardboard boxes -- one was a shoe box.

On September 21, the House passed H.Con.Res.122, another version of the PROTECT Patrimony Resolution. The bill was introduced by Rep. Steve Pearce (R-New Mexico).

The Senate passed the bill on September 29. But lawmakers replaced the text of H.Con.Res.122 with that of S.Con.Res.49.

Since the two versions are slightly different, the House would need to take action before the measure can be sent to President Barack Obama for a potential signature.

The committee approved S.Con.Res.49 on September 7 and, on September 29, it cleared the Senate, although in a modified form as H.Con.Res.122.

Since the measure was changed after passage in the House on September 12, Congress would need to take additional action before it can be sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.

With additional reporting by Tara Gatewood from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Oversight FIELD Hearing on "The Theft, Illegal Possession, Sale, Transfer and Export of Tribal Cultural Items." (October 18, 2016)

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Senate Indian Affairs Committee takes up sale of tribal property (10/13)
Lawmakers take action on Native youth and Indian Country bills (09/29)
House passes measure to combat illegal sale of tribal property (09/23)
Appeals court hears lawsuit over death in stolen artifact case (9/21)
Bill to protect tribal cultural property gains steam on Capitol Hill (9/20)
Association on American Indian Affairs hosts repatriation conference (09/14)
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs schedules business meeting (09/02)
Judge grants warrant for sacred shield stolen from Acoma Pueblo (09/01)
Federal authorities file warrant for shield stolen from Acoma Pueblo (08/02)
Cronkite News: Sen. McCain signs onto bill to stop export of tribal property (07/11)
Tribes support bill in Senate to stop the export of cultural property (07/06)
Lawmakers set to take up funding bill for Indian Country programs (7/5)
Acoma Pueblo waits on France to return stolen ceremonial shield (06/22)
Lakota Country Times: Tribes fail to stop auction of warrior shirt (06/08)
Editorial: Acoma Pueblo needs justice for theft of sacred property (06/06)
Auction of tribal property goes ahead in France amid opposition (06/01)
Auction house in France won't stop sale of sacred tribal property (5/26)
Cronkite News: Tribes seek return of property up for sale in France (5/25)
Tribes meet to discuss sale of ancestors and property in France (5/24)
Secretary Jewell addresses auctions of tribal property in France (12/04)
Auction house in France sells sacred tribal property for $450K (06/10)
Hopi Tribe and Acoma Pueblo seek to block sale of sacred items (06/09)
Hopi Tribe trying to stop yet another auction of sacred property (06/02)
Hopi Tribe seeks to prevent auction of sacred property in France (05/27)
Leader of Hopi Tribe sues over sales of sacred items in France (04/10)
Navajo Nation buys sacred masks from auction house in France (12/15)
Annenberg Foundation acquires sacred items for Alaska Natives (09/03)
Opinion: Auction of tribal property in France sets bad precedent (07/25)
Auction house in France goes ahead with sale of tribal property (06/30)
Sacred property being returned to tribes in Arizona after auction (02/20)
Trending in News
More Headlines