VIDEO: Heinrich Legislation To Safeguard Tribal Items Gains Momentum In Key Committee Hearing

Senator Heinrich’s STOP Act would prohibit exporting sacred Native items and increase penalties for illegally trafficking Native cultural objects

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) delivered remarks on the bipartisan Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act today in a key hearing on pending legislative items in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. This is a critical step forward on Senator Heinrich’s legislation to prohibit the exporting of sacred Native American items and would increase penalties for stealing and illegally trafficking tribal cultural patrimony.

VIDEO: Heinrich Delivers Remarks On Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act [DOWNLOAD HD LINK HERE]

Senator Heinrich introduced the STOP Act alongside U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and the bill continues to gain momentum and widespread, bipartisan support. The bill has been endorsed by organizations and tribes across Indian Country.

“I appreciate the collaboration and support we’ve had with New Mexico’s Pueblos, the Jicarilla and Mescalero Apache Nations, the Navajo Nation, and tribes across Indian Country to craft the STOP Act,” said Heinrich. “I am proud that the STOP Act has the support of the National Congress of American Indians, the All Indian Pueblo Council, United South and Eastern Tribes Sovereignty Protection Fund, the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, the Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes, and many more individual tribes across the country.”

Senator Heinrich’s legislation would help prevent instances like the auction of a shield, stolen from the Pueblo of Acoma. Heinrich played a role in the effort to bring the shield home by working with Governors Riley and Vallo to call for its return.

Senator Heinrich’s remarks as prepared for delivery below:

Thank you, Chairman Hoeven and Vice-Chairman Udall, for holding this hearing on my legislation, the Safeguarding Tribal Objects of Patrimony—or STOP Act.

This bill’s strong bipartisan support gives me hope that we can solve this problem for the tribal communities we represent in the very near future.

The need for this legislation is straightforward.

We all recognize the incredible beauty of American Indian art.

Especially when you live in a state like New Mexico, you can explore and admire the remnants of ancient cultures in places like Chaco Canyon and the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

And you can discover both traditional and modern art masterpieces created by Native artists today.

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

This issue came to international attention in 2016 when Kurt Riley, then the governor of the Pueblo of Acoma, learned that a sacred ceremonial shield had been stolen and was about to be sold to the highest bidder in Paris.

When Governor Riley informed me about this robbery of the Pueblo’s cultural patrimony, I called on the State Department to take all possible action to halt the auction.

Thankfully, intense public outcry and diplomatic pressure were enough to halt the illegal sale of a tribe’s cultural patrimony.

Finally, in November 2019, more than three years after the shield was put on the auction block, it was voluntarily returned to the pueblo.

However, this only happened through the cooperation of the individual who put the shield up for auction in the first place.

There is still no federal law prohibiting the export of items like the shield and requiring the cooperation of foreign governments in recovering them.

And in many other cases, tribes in New Mexico and across the nation have been forced to effectively pay a ransom or had to stand by and watch the sale of their priceless religious and cultural items in international markets.

Under current federal law, it is a crime to sell these types of protected Native American cultural objects in the United States.

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

And prosecutions are far too infrequent to deter criminals from smuggling and selling these objects.

In addition, there is no explicit ban on exporting these items to foreign countries, where they might be sold at auction—a fact that was cited by the French government when they initially declined to stop the auction of the Acoma Shield.

That’s why I introduced the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act—or the STOP Act.

The STOP Act increases penalties for illegally trafficking tribal cultural patrimony.

It also explicitly prohibits the exportation of these objects and creates an export certification system, which will protect sacred objects under international law.

And it also encourages the voluntary return of sacred objects held in private collections, because the highest priority of everyone involved in this issue is to see these sacred items return home to where they belong.

I appreciate the collaboration and support we’ve had with New Mexico’s Pueblos, the Jicarilla and Mescalero Apache Nations, the Navajo Nation, and tribes across Indian Country to craft the STOP Act.

I am proud that the STOP Act has the support of the National Congress of American Indians, the All Indian Pueblo Council, United South and Eastern Tribes Sovereignty Protection Fund, the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, the Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes, and many more individual tribes across the country.  

The widespread support for the STOP Act across Indian Country is unfortunate evidence of how widespread theft and illegal sales of tribal patrimony has been.

When I first introduced the STOP Act in 2016, I met with high school students from the Santa Fe Indian School’s Leadership Institute who had come to Capitol Hill to advocate for important issues in their communities.

These students shared with me a position paper they had prepared on the importance of passing the STOP Act.

They also shared personal stories about how important protecting cultural items is to their generation as they work to fulfill their sacred trust as generations before them have.

Listening to what these incredible young people had to say reinforced the urgency we must act with to return and safeguard sacred items.

We need to take all possible action to repatriate stolen culturally significant items to their rightful owners.

So again, I am grateful for your holding a hearing on this important legislation, Chairman Hoeven and Vice Chairman Udall.

I hope that you will work to pass the STOP Act in the full Senate as soon as possible.