Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke participates in a Veterans Day observance at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C, on November 7, 2017. Photo: U.S. DOI

Trump administration sets up roadblocks as tribes call for return of sacred items

Efforts to repatriate tribal property and even tribal ancestors are hitting roadblocks within the Trump administration.

As a member of Congress, Secretary Ryan Zinke co-sponsored a resolution that called for the return of tribal items to their rightful place. But now that he's in charge of the Department of the Interior, the situation has shifted.

The new administration, for example, is refusing to take a position on a new cultural protection bill that expands on the legislation Zinke supported just last year. A senior Bureau of Indian Affairs official said the Trump team wants to wait for the results of further study even as tribal leaders called for more immediate action.

"We want to get it right," John Tahsuda, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe, who serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs for the Trump administration, said at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday afternoon.

Tahsuda's testimony before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs was met with resistance from tribal leaders. Given the ongoing sales of sacred cultural items in international markets, Governor Kurt Riley of the Pueblo of Acoma could think of no reason for anyone to wait for the Government Accountability Office study, a process that could take many months to complete.

"These cultural items are continuing to leave and go across the seas to be sold," Riley said. "Should we wait for the GAO report? In my opinion, actions can be taken now without the GAO report."

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs November 8, 2017

But that wasn't the only area of concern raised during the hearing. Tahsuda confirmed that Zinke put a hold on a key advisory panel that was established by Congress to ensure compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

The NAGPRA Review Committee, which consists of tribal officials, spiritual leaders and other experts, hasn't met since March, the same month Zinke was confirmed to his Cabinet post. The Trump administration canceled a meeting that was to take place in July and hasn't appointed any new members while Interior conducts, in essence, a review of the review committee.

"We wanted to make sure the committee was operating with in the law and the membership adequately reflected what the law intended," Tahusda said.

The review is not specific to NAGPRA, as all advisory committees at the department are undergoing the same review. And the federal employees who handle NAGPRA grants and notices continue to carry out their duties.

But Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) said the freeze is hindering efforts to return sacred items to their rightful place. Without clear U.S. law or policy, officials in France, where tribal items are regularly put up for action, have refused to return such items, he pointed out.

"How can the department adequately enforce NAGPRA when Secretary Zinke put the review committee on hiatus, indefinitely?" asked Udall, who serves as the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

A ceremonial shield stolen from Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico is the subject of a legal and diplomatic battle after it was put up for sale by a private auction house in France. Image from EVE Auction House

In hopes of addressing impasses at the international level, Udall and other lawmakers are pushing for passage of S.1400, the Safeguarding Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act. The bill bars the export of items that are otherwise covered, in the U.S., by NAGPRA and other cultural protection laws.

The STOP Act enjoys bipartisan support -- six of the nine co-sponsors are Republicans. While the Trump administration's silence on the bill might not hinder passage, it isn't helping either, advocates argued.

"I think it would enhance our culture and heritage, especially for our youth," Dave Flute, the chairman of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, said in describing the need for the bill.

Native languages, for example, are "strongly connected to tribal artifacts and those sacred objects that are out on the black market, or on different types of websites, for sale," Flute said. Last year, Sioux tribes were unable to prevent the sale of a warrior shirt in France.

Repatriation is extremely personal for tribes and their citizens. They are able to utilize NAGPRA to reclaim ancestors that were removed -- sometimes inadvertently but in many cases, not -- from their resting places. Items used in ceremonies and other practices can also be repatriated under the 1990 law.

But once any items leave the U.S., it's virtually impossible to get them back, Governor Riley of Acoma said. With the help of members of Congress and the Obama administration, his tribe was able to stop the sale of an important shield in France last year.

Though the tribe produced evidence that the shield was stolen from its territory in New Mexico during the 1970s, the government France has so far refused to return it. Since U.S. law did not bar the export of the item, officials in France believe it was legally acquired by someone in their country.

"The shield must come home," Riley said on Wednesday.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Legislative Hearing to Receive Testimony on S. 1400 & S. 465 (November 8, 2017)

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