A sacred Dakota pipe that was put up for sale by an auction house. Photo: Skinner Auctioneers

Tribal items still going up for sale as lawmakers advance STOP Act

A bipartisan bill aimed at stopping the trafficking of tribal items is taking a step forward on Capitol Hill amid ongoing concern over the sale of cultural property.

By a voice vote, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Wednesday approved S.1400, the Safeguarding Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act. The bill, also known as the STOP Act, seeks to curb the theft, illegal possession, sale, transfer and export of tribal cultural items.

"My hope is that -- by passing this legislation -- we will close loopholes in current law that unfortunately result in the trafficking and sale of items of cultural patrimony in international markets,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the committee, said at a business meeting during which the bill was considered.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Business Meeting - S.1400 and S.2408 - May 16, 2018

But international sales aren't the only concern, as tribes in Minnesota recently discovered when they tried to stop the sale of a sacred pipe earlier this month. An auction house in Massachusetts described the item as being carved by White Dog, also known as Shoon-ka-ska. He was among the 38 Dakota men who were sentenced to death and hanged by the United States in 1862 following the Dakota War.

The Prairie Island Indian Community and the Lower Sioux Indian Community were unable to halt the auction and the pipe was sold for $39,975, well above the estimate for the item. But it turns out an anonymous buyer intends to return it to Minnesota.

“We are humbled by and grateful for this honorable act,” President Shelley Buck of Prairie Island said in a statement after being informed of the development. “Pidamayaye [thank you] to the donor for your respect and generosity.”

The sacred Dakota pipe, labeled as "Fine Plains Catlinite Stem and Bowl." Photo: Skinner Auctioneers

Other tribes also have benefited from benefactors when their items have gone up for sale, particularly in France, where such auctions have become notorious in recent years. And some, like the Navajo Nation, have even used their own funds to reclaim their patrimony from overseas markets.

“By passing these cultural protection laws, Congress will take another step in making history in its endeavor to make the Navajo Nation and all tribes across the country whole after experiencing the erosion of their cultural identities," said President Russell Begaye. "You will contribute to our hózhó, the beauty way of our life."

But paying for sacred items -- especially those that were removed illegally from tribal homelands -- is out of the question for other tribes. Many lack the funds and consider it another affront to be forced to spend money on what was originally theirs.

Yet legal options are all but closed to tribes in other countries, especially in France, where laws and court decisions have favored auction houses. And diplomacy doesn't always work either, as the Pueblo of Acoma has discovered.

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

During the Obama administration, the tribe worked with the Department of State to stop the sale of a sacred shield in Paris. In a rare action, the auction house pulled the item, which had been stolen from the reservation in New Mexico sometime in the early 1970s.

Two years later, the tribe still doesn't have the shield. Still, Governor Kurt Riley, who has been one of the strongest advocates of the STOP Act, remains hopeful that it will come home.

“The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs’ positive vote today on the STOP Act marks an important milestone in the national effort to protect sensitive tribal cultural patrimony from being stolen and shipped out of the United States for sale,” Riley said on Wednesday.

“As the legislation proceeds through the process, Acoma remains open to discussing any amendments, such as establishing an export certification process, but we are grateful that the legislation, as it now stands, addresses the heart of the matter,” Riley added.

The next step is for the STOP Act, which boasts eight Democratic and six Republican supporters, to be considered on the Senate floor. The companion version in the House is H.R.3211, which has not yet received a hearing.

In addition to advancing S.1400 at the business meeting, the committee approved S.2804, the Cultivating Resources, Opportunity, Prosperity and Sustainability (CROPS) for Indian Country Act. The measure brings self-governance to the Department of Agriculture so tribes can exercise greater control over key programs. It also updates existing programs to improve agricultural opportunities in Indian Country.

“Our committee has heard from tribal leaders and stakeholders, including tribal colleges and universities, about the importance of enhancing tribal self-governance for USDA programs,” Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the chairman of the panel, said in a press release on Wednesday. . “This legislation establishes a self-determination demonstration project for nutrition and forestry programs, and it reflects a number of important priorities for Indian Country in the upcoming farm bill. Strengthening the partnership between USDA and Indian tribes will expand agribusiness opportunities for Indian Country’s producers and leverage resources to better support rural tribal economies.”

“This bipartisan legislation reflects Indian Country’s priorities, and is a step in the right direction toward more robust engagement with tribes and Native stakeholders in the Farm Bill reauthorization process. I’m pleased to see it pass through committee so quickly,” Udall added.

Supporters hope to include the provisions of the CROPS Act into the national Farm Bill. The Senate version is still being developed while the House debates H.R.2, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act, which has proven controversial in the chamber.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Business Meeting to Consider S. 1400 & S. 2804 (May 16, 2018)

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