A federal law meant to help return stolen Native American artifacts to their rightful owners has cleared its final hurdle after unanimous approval in the U.S. Senate.
The Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act, also known as the STOP Act, passed the Senate on Tuesday and was sent to President Joe Biden with the expectation it soon will be signed into law.
“Having this finally on the books and headed to the president’s desk really feels quite good,” Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said in an interview. “This is going to give both individual tribes and law enforcement tools with which they can help leverage the return of cultural items.”
Heinrich, the measure’s sponsor, first introduced the bill in 2016 after a stolen ceremonial war shield from Acoma Pueblo was found up for bid at an Eve auction house in Paris a year earlier.
The STOP Act would outlaw the exportation of Native American human remains and cultural items obtained illegally and create a certification system for items that can be exported. It also would increase the maximum prison sentence for stealing or trafficking items to
10 years from five years and would create avenues to have stolen items returned to their rightful owners.
The Acoma shield, more than a century old, had been used for cultural and religious ceremonies. It was taken from a home in Sky City in the 1970s. Former Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo said the pueblo had no idea what had happened to the shield until it was up for auction.
“There was great concern and sadness when we learned that the shield for the first time was on the auction block,” Vallo said. “We were fortunate that the shield did not sell the first time, but it came up again in auction and the tribe was very responsive to the situation.”
Vallo said the tribe began reaching out to government officials for help and eventually caught Heinrich’s attention.
As he worked with the tribe to recover the shield, the senator realized there was a larger issue that could be addressed through legislation.
“Once I started working with Acoma, we started reaching out to tribes around the country, and what we learned was this is a huge, sort of nefarious problem that was much broader than I was aware,” Heinrich said.
“I remember talking to two officials at the Navajo Nation who had masks similarly stolen and moved to auction houses in Europe, so that story became evident over and over again,” he added.
The Acoma shield was surrendered to the FBI in 2019 after the U.S. Department of Justice filed a civil complaint asking for its return to the pueblo.
Supporters of the STOP Act, including Acoma Pueblo, said the restrictions could have stopped the shield from being taken out of the U.S. and helped get it back to the tribe sooner.
“A clear hurdle in that effort was the lack of explicit exportation restrictions which could have prevented the shield’s exportation and ensured its return upon the warrant issued by a federal court,” the Acoma Pueblo government said in a statement.
“Unfortunately, this experience is not limited to the Pueblo of Acoma and is the lived experience of tribal nations across the country as their sacred tribal cultural heritage items are trafficked, often winding up in auctions oversees with little chance of returning home.”
Heinrich’s first effort to pass the STOP Act in 2016 was halted in a Senate committee, but he was not deterred. He reintroduced the bill every year until it finally cleared both chambers of Congress.
In 2020, the bill stalled in the House due to some technicalities, Heinrich said.
He then enlisted the help of Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, who reintroduced the bill in the House in 2021.
“Having it come from the House side to the Senate side fixes some of the those technicalities,” Heinrich said. “All along, this has been an issue where we’ve had to navigate a lot of technical challenges, despite the fact that almost everyone said this was a really good idea and necessary piece of legislation. It’s just a lesson on how challenging it is to legislate in the current political environment.”
The proposed law is meant to bolster an international UNESCO treaty in 1970. The treaty calls for nations to protect cultural properties illegally taken from their home countries but does not outlaw exportation.
“Until the STOP Act, we had no law to stop the export of Native American patrimony,” Leger Fernández said in a statement.
“The STOP Act will explicitly prohibit the export of tribal cultural items obtained illegally and better enable their return if found overseas,” she added.
Heinrich said Acoma Pueblo and other tribes played an essential role in getting the bill passed by urging their representatives to support the bill.