July 26, 2016

STOP Act Aims to Stop Export Native American items

Kelsey Hill

A recent resolution to increase penalties for exporting Native American artifacts has been steadily gaining momentum with bipartisan lawmakers and tribal entities.

The Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony bill — called the STOP Act — was introduced by New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich (D) earlier this month and hastily gained the support of Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Tom Udall (D-NM).

The legislation was drafted in response to the highly-controversial auction in Paris last May. The event, held at the EVE auction house, had Navajo, Hopi, and Acoma Pueblo artifacts for sale, among others. International outrage over the event spurred an emergency meeting May 30 at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, between tribal leaders, NGO officials, and governmental representatives.

Along with multiple protests against EVE, the meeting resulted in the removal of the shield from the auction block by June. While artifacts can be auctioned in France if they were obtained legally, the sacred Acoma Pueblo shield was pulled due to claims it was stolen from an Acoma family several decades ago.

However, many other Native American artifacts, endowed with sacred meaning to the communities they belong to, were sold to European attendees and art collectors worldwide. This destructive practice has robbed many native communities in the U.S. of their sacred material culture.

In the last few weeks, other senators from both sides of the aisle have cosponsored the STOP Act, including Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.),

McCain’s support is welcomed but surprising, given in 2014 he helped in facilitating the sale of Oak Flats in Arizona, a sacred site to the Apache.

The senator, despite having sold off sacred land to benefit his own political career, has publicly affirmed the need to keep cultural artifacts connected to Native American communities, saying “Congress must impose stiffer penalties to stop these sacred items from being lost forever.”

If passed, the STOP Act would increase the penalty of illegally exporting objects in violation of NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, or the Antiquities Act to a maximum of ten years in prison as well as punitive fines. It also includes a clause providing amnesty for anyone who comes forward with objects of Native American patrimony and returns them to the appropriate tribe or family in a two-year period.

Before it enters the Senate floor, it will go before the Committee on Indian Affairs. Passage of the act would create an inter-tribal council, which will be tasked with assisting the federal government in assessing the severity of black market trafficking of sacred objects, as well as finding solutions to halt the widespread issue.

“These culturally significant and historical objects belong with the tribes, not the highest bidder.”, said Senator Flint in a press release.

As of now, there are few legal avenues a nation or tribal community can take to get a sacred item or artifact back to their lands, especially once it has crossed the sea. The STOP Act could create a statute to prosecute the crime of stealing, smuggling, and profiting off of Native American patrimony.

Legally, the framework proposed by the STOP Act gives access to tribal communities to seek federal prosecution for violations of the law, as well as critical protection of significant cultural material and the heritage they represent.

The Navajo Nation passed a resolution in support of the measure, with many tribal governments and organizations formally endorsing the STOP Act in the last several weeks.

Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates said in a press conference that his community “has consistently sought to repatriate sacred objects, as well as protect our sacred sites, land, culture, language and way of life.”

It is imperative for indigenous rights that the federal government move this bill forward and remain engaged on the issue of trafficked Native American artifacts. For indigenous communities, objects of patrimony are key to connecting the past and present, and preserving cultural wisdom for future generations.

Sacred objects should remain with the communities of their origin, and the importance of their repatriation and protection cannot be understated.