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Heinrich Legislation To Safeguard Tribal Artifacts Receives Key Committee Hearing

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Today, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) delivered the following opening remarks at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs oversight field hearing in Albuquerque on the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act, a bill he introduced earlier this month to prohibit the exporting of sacred Native American items and increase penalties for stealing and illegally trafficking tribal cultural patrimony. The field hearing is currently being livestreamed by KOAT TV here.

The field hearing, held at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, is a critical step in the legislative process to gather input and move toward passing the STOP Act into law, and featured testimony from tribal leaders and federal agency officials. Click here for a full list of witnesses and written testimony.

Senator Heinrich's opening remarks as prepared for delivery are below:

Good morning, I appreciate all of you for being here today. I take great pride in working with New Mexico's tribal communities.

I would like to thank my colleague Senator Tom Udall and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee for holding this field hearing on tribal patrimony. This is an issue that I have heard raised time and time again when meeting with New Mexico's tribes and pueblos.

I would like to thank the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center for hosting this important hearing, and thank all of our witnesses for your testimony.

Especially our tribal leaders from New Mexico: President Russell Begaye of the Navajo Nation, Governor Paul Torres of Isleta Pueblo, and Governor Kurt Riley of the Pueblo of Acoma.

Earlier this year, when looking through a list of tribal artifacts up for bid at an art auction house in Paris, the Pueblo of Acoma discovered that the Acoma shield, a sacred ceremonial object, had been stolen and was about to be sold to the highest bidder.

After Acoma Governor Kurt Riley notified me, I wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging the U.S. State Department to take all possible action to help repatriate the shield and other stolen cultural items to American Indian tribes. Thankfully, in that particular case, intense public outcry and diplomatic pressure were enough to postpone the illegal sale of a tribe's cultural patrimony. And the U.S. Department of Justice has issued a warrant to retrieve the shield from France.

This is welcome news, but the shield has still not been recovered from Paris. 

And in hundreds of other cases, tribes across the nation have been unable to stop similar theft and sale of their priceless religious and cultural items in international markets.

Under federal law, it is a crime to steal and sell these types of Native American cultural objects. 

Unfortunately, the penalties in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act are not as high as other similar statutes, like the National Stolen Property Act. 

Prosecutions are too infrequent to deter criminals from smuggling and selling these objects. 

And there is no explicit ban on exporting these items to foreign countries, where they might be sold at auction.

Just last month, I attended the White House Tribal Nations Conference, which brought together tribal leaders from the 567 federally recognized tribes. 

These conferences have been important opportunities to bring tribal leaders together and I called on the next Administration to continue this tradition. 

It was an honor to attend this year's conference and have the opportunity to listen to tribal leaders and discuss issues critical to Indian Country-including my Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act-or the STOP Act.

The STOP Act is a bill I introduced to prohibit the exporting of sacred Native American items and increase penalties for stealing and illegally trafficking tribal cultural patrimony.

The STOP Act will also create a tribal working group to help federal agencies better understand the scope of the problem and how to solve it. 

I am proud of my work with tribes in New Mexico and across Indian Country to craft this legislation.

I announced the bill's introduction alongside tribal leaders here at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque and on Capitol Hill in July.

I'm pleased that the STOP Act has been endorsed by the Navajo Nation; the Jicarilla, Mescalero, and San Carlos Apache Nations; the pueblos of Acoma, Santa Ana, Isleta, Zuni, Laguna, Nambé, Jemez and Ohkay Owingeh. As well as the All Pueblo Council of Governors, the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council, the National Congress of American Indians, the United South and Eastern Tribes Sovereignty Protection Fund, and most recently the National Parks Conservation Association. 

I'm also proud to welcome growing bipartisan support for my legislation in the Senate, including Senators Jeff Flake,Tom Udall, John McCain, Jon Tester, Lisa Murkowski, Steve Daines, Brian Schatz, Cory Gardner, and Michael Bennet who have all signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.

This hearing on the bill is an important step for us to take to continue to build momentum toward passing it into law. I'm grateful for the witnesses here from federal agencies who will tell us about their work to protect and repatriate tribal patrimony and I look forward to hearing from them about additional tools that would aid them in their enforcement efforts.

While we must improve federal law to create a stronger legal deterrence, we also need to change the hearts and minds of art collectors and dealers who are engaging in it.

The STOP Act includes an immunity period for collectors who may have illegal items in their possession to voluntarily repatriate those items to the tribe they belong to without the threat of prosecution.

All of us recognize the incredible beauty of American Indian art-especially when you're from a place like New Mexico, where you can explore and admire the remnants of ancient wonders in places like Chaco Canyon and the Gila Cliff Dwellings and discover the traditional and modern art masterpieces created by contemporary Native artists. 

But we can also recognize a clear difference between supporting tribal artists or collecting artifacts ethically and legally as opposed to dealing or exporting items that tribes have identified as essential and sacred pieces of their cultural heritage.

We need to take all possible action to stop the latter and help repatriate stolen culturally significant items to their rightful owners.