Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs / Department of State on YouTube: Protecting Cultural Patrimony: Pueblo of Acoma

Report confirms big market for sale of tribal cultural property

For the first time, a new report has put a price tag on the sale of tribal cultural property on the international market.

According to the Government Accountability Office, nearly 1,400 tribal items were put up for sale overseas between 2012 and 2017. And even though only about half of the items were actually purchased, collectors were willing to pay a high price for a piece of Indian Country's heritage.

These items sold for nearly $7 million, the GAO said in a report made public on Wednesday. And that's just the tip of the iceberg -- the data was based on items at just five auction houses in Paris, France, where tribes have repeatedly raised objections to the sale of their property.

That means additional auction houses, as well as other international markets where cultural items sold, were missed. And there is little tribes can do about it, the report confirmed.

"No federal law explicitly prohibits the export of Native American cultural items, creating a challenge for tribes because they cannot easily prove that the items were exported from the United States illegally," the GAO wrote in the report.

At the insistence of tribes, the federal government, through diplomacy, legal action and other means, is starting to do something to change the situation. The GAO report was commissioned after members of Congress began introducing legislation to address the export and sale of cultural items overseas.

"Tribes in New Mexico and across the nation have been forced to effectively pay a ransom or had to stand by and watch the sale of their priceless religious and cultural items in international markets," Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) said at a hearing in November for a bill known as the Safeguarding Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act, or STOP Act.

Tribes in New Mexico and surrounding states are in fact the most affected by the auctions in Paris. Of the nearly 1,400 items that were examined for the study, almost 70 percent were labeled as coming from the Southwest, the GAO found.

These items include sacred masks belonging to the Navajo Nation, whose reservation is located in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. In 2014, the tribe sent its then-vice president on a repatriation mission to Paris, after the auction house refused a request to remove them from sale.

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

Two years after that, another auction house was refusing to stop the sale of a sacred shield belonging to Pueblo of Acoma. After the United States offered evidence that it had been stolen from the reservation sometime in the early 1970s, the item was pulled.

But 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, where it remains, more than two years later.

"The shield must come home," Pueblo of Acoma Governor Kurt Riley said at the STOP Act hearing on November 8, 2017.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs advanced S.1400, the Safeguarding Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act, at a business meeting on May 16. It has not yet been considered on the Senate floor.

"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 during the meeting.

Government Accountability Office Report
GAO-18-537: Native American Cultural Property: Additional Agency Actions Needed to Assist Tribes with Repatriating Items from Overseas Auctions (September 2018)

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