Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
The US Senate this week unanimously passed legislation to crack down on the illegal export of Native American cultural property and other illegally acquired artifacts and toughen criminal penalties.
The bill was cleared after Senator Martin Heinrich, DN.M., spoke. and said the bill would have helped the Acoma Pueblo’s years-long effort to stop the sacred shield, which has been missing for decades, from being sold at auction. in Paris, France.
The tribe learned that the shield was being auctioned in 2016. The shield was voluntarily returned in 2019.
“The need for this legislation is quite simple,” Heinrich said. “Intense public outcry and diplomatic pressure were enough to stop the illegal sale of the tribe’s cultural heritage.”
Brian Vallo, former governor of Acoma Pueblo, said he was grateful the bill, called the Protect Tribal Heritage Sites Act, or STOP, passed the Senate.
Vallo said the legislation would have made it easier for the pueblo to get the shield back from the auction house, which took years. He said it was only returned after lawyers and other tribes worked with the Acoma to campaign for its return.
Vallo also met with the sender and convinced the person to return the shield.
“I think it will also really send a strong message to collectors who engage in this type of illegal activity, both in the US and elsewhere, that it will no longer be tolerated,” he said.
The law partially increases from five to 10 years the maximum prison sentence for a person convicted of selling, buying, using for profit or transporting illegally acquired human remains or certain cultural assets. It also adds civil penalties for similar acts and makes it clear that the export of illegally obtained tribal items is a crime.
The bill passed the House 364-57 last year. It will now be headed to President Biden’s desk at the White House Tribal Nations Summit this week.
All five members of the state’s congressional delegation supported the measure. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, DN.M., sponsored the House bill.
“While the United States has enacted domestic laws to help other countries protect their cultural assets, until the STOP Act we did not have a law to stop the export of Native American heritage. Nowhere is this more evident than with the stolen Acoma Pueblo shield,” she said in a statement. “The STOP Act will expressly prohibit the export of illegally obtained tribal cultural items and allow their return if found abroad.”