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Bipartisan, Bicameral Legislation To Safeguard Tribal Items Reintroduced With Promising Momentum

The bipartisan STOP Act passed out of the Senate in December 2020, lawmakers express optimism in path forward

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) reintroduced bipartisan legislation to prohibit the exporting of sacred Native American items and increase penalties for stealing and illegally trafficking Tribal cultural patrimony. The House companion was introduced by U.S. Representatives Teresa Leger Fernández (D-N.M.), Don Young (R-Alaska), Tom Cole (R-Okla.), and Sharice Davids (D-Kan.). 

The Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOPAct passed out of the Senate in December of 2020 by unanimous consent. 

The STOP Act will help prevent instances like the auction of a shield, stolen from the Pueblo of Acoma. Senator Heinrich played a role in the effort to bring the shield home by working with Governors Kurt Riley and Brian Vallo to call for its return. 

“For years, I’ve been proud to work with New Mexico’s Pueblos, the Jicarilla and Mescalero Apache Nations, the Navajo Nation, and Tribes across Indian Country to halt the trade of culturally significant items and repatriate stolen pieces to their rightful owners,” said Heinrich. “We have the support – we have the momentum. It’s time to get the STOP Act across the finish line." 

“Senator Heinrich and I are reintroducing the STOP Act in an effort to address the illegal trade of Alaska Native and American Indian cultural and sacred items,” said Murkowski. “By safeguarding and repatriating tribal cultural heritage, we are protecting Alaska Native and American Indian history and culture, and helping correct longstanding cultural oppression. In addition to returning illegally traded items, the bill also enacts harsher penalties on those who illegally traffic these relics and artifacts. If this bill is signed into law, we can ensure that items of cultural significance remain with, or are returned to their rightful owners and that Native identities are respected.” 

“In New Mexico, we honor and cherish the history and culture of Native American communities,” said Leger Fernández. “We also respect that Tribal nations have the right to decide how they will preserve and handle their own cultural heritage. Unfortunately, the theft and illegal trafficking of sacred Tribal items for profit remains a worldwide problem. I am proud to partner with Senator Heinrich and introduce the STOPAct to protect priceless cultural patrimony and ensure stolen items are returned to their rightful owners.” 

"Since its passage, the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act has been an important tool for bringing home Native American cultural items, including art, ceremonial goods, and sacred property. However, more must be done to ensure our Indigenous communities' important cultural belongings are preserved and protected,"said Young. "Gaps in existing law have made it challenging to prohibit the export of Native American cultural items, leading to further loss of these precious materials. Very frankly, this is wrong. Alaska Natives have called our state home for centuries, and as the state's sole Representative, I am proud to help introduce the STOP Act to return precious cultural property to the communities where they belong. I am grateful to my friend, Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez for her partnership on this critical issue, and I ask my colleagues to support our legislation.” 

“Just as the United States helps protect and return foreign cultural property, it is only right for other countries to respect ownership of the sacred treasures, artifacts and other items belonging to Native Americans,” said Cole. “I am proud to join with my colleagues to reintroduce the STOP Act, which would be critical in combatting the trafficking of Native American artifacts. By stopping the illegal exportation of precious cultural property of Native Americans, we can preserve and safeguard their priceless history and heritage.” 

“No one’s sacred and historical items should be stolen and trafficked for profit, but Native Americans and Native Hawaiians have been subjected to this practice for centuries,” said Davids. “Our people should have control over how and where these items are shared. I am proud to join my colleagues in the introduction of this bill to protect priceless cultural items for generations to come.” 

The STOP Act:

  • Increases Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) penalties to aid in deterrence.
  • Explicitly prohibits the export of tribal cultural heritage obtained in violation of NAGRPA or the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA). Creates an export certification system where an exporter seeking to export an item that qualifies as a Native American cultural item or archaeological resource under NAGPRA or ARPA must apply for a certification, and only items legally obtained are eligible for a certification. Certain countries, such as France, restrict import of cultural heritage illegally exported from a country that issues export certificates. The export prohibition paired with the export certification system will help the United States and tribes use those countries’ domestic laws and law enforcement mechanisms to return illegally exported items.
  • Confirms the President’s authority to enter into agreements under a 1970 international treaty in order to request from other countries return of tribal cultural heritage. The United States has already entered into such agreements to protect other countries’ cultural heritage.
  • Creates a federal framework to support voluntary return of sacred items, including a referral program to allow the Department of the Interior to assist individuals in finding a tribe with a cultural affiliation to tribal cultural heritage they want to return.
  • Creates a federal working group to ensure coordination between federal agencies whose work involves protecting or facilitating repatriation of tribal cultural heritage.
  • Establishes a tribal working group to aid federal agencies and committees whose work involves protecting or facilitating repatriation of tribal cultural heritage.

The Senate bill was introduced by Senators Heinrich and Murkowski and is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Mike Crape (R-Idaho), Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), James Lankford (R-Okla.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska). The House companion was introduced by Representatives Leger Fernández, Young, Davids, and Cole and is cosponsored by U.S. Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), Brian Mast (R-Fla.), Aumua Amata Radewagan (R-American Samoa), and Karen Bass (D-Calif.).

Read the full text of the bill by clicking here

The STOP Act has been endorsed by organizations and Tribes across Indian Country. 

“The reintroduction of the STOP Act is timely and so critical to our nation-to-nation relationship. During this pandemic, the Pueblo of Acoma, like many tribes throughout the country, was forced to modify the ways in which we gather and interact as family and community for the sake of mitigating the virus and protecting our people. Most tragic has been the loss of life, the loss of culture and language bearers, and the loss that comes with our inability to come together to observe our indigenous way of life. In anticipation of reengaging with our Acoma culture, it is imperative that we also maintain the momentum where the protection of our cultural heritage items are concerned. These include our cultural patrimony, the sacred items that are integral to the continuance of Acoma. The STOP Act will provide another important layer for these protections for all Native Americans, with an emphasis on halting the black market that has developed abroad,” said Governor Brian Vallo of the Pueblo of Acoma.

National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) President, Fawn Sharp identified the passage of the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOPAct as a priority for Indian Country for the 117th Congress in her recent testimony to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. 

“NAGPRA was a monumental piece of legislation that resulted in the return of many ancestral remains and sacred items and items of cultural patrimony. However, Tribal Nations cannot prevent the export of these items to foreign countries. The STOP Actwould prohibit the export of Native American items of cultural patrimony obtained in violation of current federal law, increase the penalties for such acts, and facilitate inter-governmental coordination to expedite the return of already exported items from foreign countries to their tribal homelands,” said Sharp. 

“The ongoing advocacy of APCG to protect its member Pueblos’ traditional and cultural items is paramount to Pueblo sovereignty and cultural heritage. We believe the STOP Actwill suppress the longstanding practice of the illegal trafficking of our member Pueblo’s irreplaceable cultural heritage items that are threatened by ongoing displacement from our communities and bring restoration through repatriation,” said Wilfred Herrera Jr., Chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors.

The STOP Act has also received the support of: 

  • All Pueblo Council of Governors
  • Association of American Indian Affairs 
  • Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums 
  • Association of Village Council Presidents 
  • Catawba Indian Nation 
  • Duckwater Shoshone Tribe 
  • Hopland Tribe 
  • Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes 
  • National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers 
  • National Indian Head Start Directors Association 
  • National Trust for Historic Preservation 
  • Pueblo of Acoma 
  • Pueblo of Santa Clara 
  • Pueblo of Tesuque 
  • Pueblo of Zuni 
  • Sealaska Heritage 
  • Society for American Archeology 
  • American Anthropological Association and AAA Archaeology Division 
  • American Cultural Resources Association 
  • Archaeological Institute of America 
  • National Trust for Historic Preservation 
  • Society for Historical Archaeology 
  • SRI Foundation