Heinrich Introduces Bill To Prohibit Exporting Sacred Native American Items

Legislation Would Increase Penalties For Illegally Trafficking Native Cultural Objects

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Today at a press conference on Capitol Hill, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M) announced the introduction of the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act, a bill to prohibit the exporting of sacred Native American items and increase penalties for stealing and illegally trafficking tribal cultural patrimony.  The bill's introduction comes after Senator Heinrich worked to help halt the auction of a Pueblo of Acoma ceremonial shield that was scheduled to be sold at the EVE Auction House in Paris in May.

Yesterday, Senator Heinrich was joined by tribal leaders at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, N.M. to discuss the details of the STOP Act and highlight the urgent need to stop the theft and sale of priceless Native religious and cultural items in international markets.

"The STOP Act will increase penalties for stealing and illegally trafficking tribal cultural patrimony. It will also prohibit exporting these objects and create a tribal working group to help federal agencies better understand the scope of the problem and how to solve it. I am proud to work with tribes in New Mexico and across Indian Country to craft this legislation," said Sen. Heinrich. "Especially in a place like New Mexico, we all recognize the incredible beauty of American Indian art--from the remnants of ancient wonders that we can explore and admire in places like Chaco Canyon and the Gila Cliff Dwellings to the traditional and modern art masterpieces created by Native artists to this day. 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."

"Tribal sacred objects play a fundamental role in connecting Tribal members to their culture and their personal identity, and this connection should be recognized and respected at all levels of government in the United States and abroad. These aren't items of art to be collected and exploited, and I'm proud to work with Senator Heinrich and New Mexico's Tribal leaders to ensure the penalties for stealing and illegally trafficking sacred Native American cultural objects are closer in line with the significance of the crimes," said U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), a cosponsor of the STOP Act. "This is one important step we must take, but I will continue to work to ensure all of our federal agencies understand the importance of preventing international trafficking as well."

The Navajo Nation and the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council have passed resolutions supporting the STOP Act, and the bill has been endorsed by tribes across Indian Country, including  the Jicarilla Apache Nation, the Pueblos of Acoma, Santa Ana, Isleta, Zuni, Laguna, Nambé, Jemez, and Ohkay Owingeh as well as the All Pueblo Council of Governors, the National Congress of American Indians, and the United South and Eastern Tribes Sovereignty Protection Fund.

"The Pueblo of Acoma has firsthand experience with the illegal removal and trafficking of our cultural objects and the uphill battle that comes with seeking their repatriation," said Pueblo of Acoma Governor Kurt Riley. "Without Indian tribes' cultural objects, the ability of our children to continue our cultural practices suffers.  The Pueblo worked closely with Senator Martin Heinrich's office in the development of and strongly supports the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act of 2016 (STOP Act), which is designed to strengthen existing federal laws protecting Native American cultural objects."

"On behalf of the Navajo Nation Council, I would like to thank Senator Heinrich for introducing this bill. The Navajo Nation has consistently sought to repatriate sacred objects, as well as protect our sacred sites, land, culture, language, and way of life," said Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council Delegate LoRenzo Bates. "This legislation strengthens that position and allows tribes the confidence that their traditions and way of life are surely protected. This not only benefits our indigenous people now, but this preserves our cultural wisdom and items to be utilized for generations to come. It solidifies our continued resiliency as Native people."

"NCAI is in strong support of Senator Heinrich's Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act of 2016," said Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians Jacqueline Pata. "The theft, illegal sale, and alienation of cultural, historical, and ceremonial items from tribal homelands have persisted despite past congressional attempts to protect and return these items. We are hopeful that the codification of these stronger penalties will deter illegal conduct, while facilitating the voluntary repatriation of cultural objects currently held by individuals fearing prosecution."

"For too long, our inherent right, recognized by Article 12 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to cultural and spiritual tradition and practice has been violated through the ongoing theft and commercial sale of our cultural, traditional, and sacred objects," said United South and Eastern Tribes Sovereignty Protection Fund President Brian Patterson. "These objects are inextricably linked to the foundations of our cultures and our survival as distinct Tribal Nations. This desecration must stop, and our cultural objects, which often include human remains, must be returned to their people. Our relatives cannot rest until their safe passage into the spirit world is secured by proper reinterment in our homelands. The Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act seeks the safe return of our objects and the end of illegal trafficking through stiffer penalties. The USET Sovereignty Protection Fund commends Senator Heinrich for the introduction of the STOP Act and calls upon Congress for its swift passage."

Specifically, the STOP Act would:

  • Increase penalties (from a maximum of five years to a maximum of 10 years) for NAGPRA criminal violations to more closely match the National Stolen Property Act and other similar statutes.
  • Explicitly prohibit the export of items obtained in violation of NAGPRA, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, or the Antiquities Act. The French government has cited the lack of an explicit export prohibition as an impediment to enforcement of NAGPRA and related laws overseas.
  • Establish a two-year amnesty period for individuals who voluntarily return all of their illegally possessed cultural objects to the appropriate tribes.
  • Direct U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to complete a report on the number of cultural objects illegally trafficked, both domestically and internationally; the extent to which the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has prosecuted cases of trafficking in cultural objects or human remains; and recommendations for DOJ, U.S. Department of State, and U.S. Department of the Interior to eliminate illegal commerce in cultural objects and secure repatriation of such objects.
  • Direct the formation of a tribal working group to work with the agencies in preparing information for the report and advise on implementation of the report's recommendations.