The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill this week to make it illegal to export Native American cultural items and other artifacts that were illegally obtained, and increases related criminal penalties.
The bill cleared the chamber after Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., took to the floor and said the bill would have helped in the yearslong effort by the Pueblo of Acoma to stop a sacred shield that had been missing for decades from being auctioned off in Paris, France.
The tribe learned that the shield was up for auction in 2016. The shield was voluntarily returned in 2019.
“The need for this legislation is pretty straightforward,” Heinrich said. “Intense public outcry and diplomatic pressure were enough to halt the illegal sale of a tribe’s cultural patrimony.”
Brian Vallo, former governor of the Acoma Pueblo, said he was grateful the bill, titled the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony, or STOP, Act, cleared the Senate.
Vallo said the law would have made it easier for the pueblo to get the shield back from the auction house, which was a yearslong struggle. He said it was returned only after advocates and other tribes worked with Acoma to campaign for its return.
Vallo also met with the consignor and persuaded the person to have the shield returned.
“I think that what it will also do is really send a strong message to collectors who are engaged in this type of illegal activity, both in the United States and elsewhere, that this will no longer be tolerated,” he said.
The legislation, in part, increases from five to 10 years the maximum prison term for someone convicted of selling, purchasing, using for profit or transporting human remains or certain cultural items that were illegally obtained. It also adds civil penalties for similar actions and makes it clear that it is a crime to export tribal items obtained illegally.
The bill last year passed the House by a 364-57 vote. It will now head to President Biden’s desk during the White House Tribal Nations Summit, which is being held this week.
All five members of the state’s congressional delegation supported the measure. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-N.M., sponsored the House bill.
“While the United States has enacted domestic law to aid other countries in protecting their cultural property, until the STOP Act, we had no law to stop the export of Native American patrimony. Nowhere is this more clear than the Pueblo of Acoma’s stolen shield,” she 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.”