A small victory for Native cultures — an Acoma Pueblo shield did not go on the auction block in Paris earlier this week.
After much protest from the United States, with top government officials weighing in on the side of Acoma Pueblo, the auction house pulled the shield. Now, to the bigger fight: staging a coordinated effort to return stolen cultural artifacts to tribes. This is not something individual tribes will be able to do alone. They will need the weight of the U.S. government behind them.
In the United States, it is illegal to sell ceremonial tribal artifacts; no such law exists in France. What’s more, the Eve Auction House believes it acquired the shield legitimately. That claim is being investigated and will have a bearing on what ultimately happens to the item, used in religious ceremonies at Acoma. The U.S. government, though, believes that the 19th-century shield likely was stolen in the 1970s.
The stealing of cultural items has long been a part of the spoils of conquest. England still displays the Elgin, or Parthenon, Marbles, taken from Greece in the 19th century. Greece wants these precious statues back, and eventually, just might persuade the world to press its case. Hitler stole paintings and other rare cultural art objects during World War II. Many of those have rightfully been returned. Countries as far-flung as Iraq, Egypt and Cambodia have fought successfully for the return of cultural treasures. It is becoming more accepted on the world stage, both in law and in practice, that might does not make right when it comes to appropriating history.
For many Indian tribes, the theft is compounded because the items are sacred, used in ceremonies for religious purposes. Not only is a bit of private history being put on display and sold to the highest bidder. That sale means religious objects are permanently removed from the realm of the sacred and placed in private collections. Such items do not belong to the highest bidder.
After the Paris auction house backed down — for now — the pueblo reported something similar was happening in the United States. A major U.S. auction house on the West Coast, the pueblo announced, is pulling an item identified by Acoma as its patrimony. “These are not art objects. They are sacred, religious items important to the cultural fabric and existence of our tribe and other tribes. Often, they were stolen from homes or sacred places of worship, but always, they left our homelands unlawfully,” Acoma Gov. Kurt Riley said in a statement.
Acoma Pueblo’s claim was made stronger with the backing of the U.S. government, including Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, who asked Secretary of State John Kerry for more active U.S. intervention in the future. As Heinrich, D-N.M., said after the shield was pulled: “This is welcome news, and I am pleased that pressure from the Pueblo, federal officials, and the public at large forced the auction house to cancel its sale. But it never should have come to this. The Pueblo of Acoma has previously been unable to halt similar foreign auctions of their cultural patrimony, resulting in profound damage to the Pueblo’s control over their own sacred objects. 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.”
Heinrich plans to introduce legislation that would prohibit the exporting of Native American religious or sensitive cultural items. His proposed legislation would strengthen penalties under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the law that protects sensitive tribal materials. Just as Acoma tribal officials have been speaking out on the world stage — including an open letter to the people of France — the domestic legislation has its own Native input. University of New Mexico student Dominic Peacock, who is from Acoma, interned with Heinrich last fall and helped make the senator aware of this issue. Peacock assisted with the early research used to draft the legislation.
The introduction of legislation matters — it shows that Congress and others understand that it will take the power and might of the United States government to help protect sacred tribal artifacts. They belong home, with the people who created them, to be used and passed along to the next generation. What happened in Paris this week should only be the beginning.