Bi-partisan legislation introduced to safeguard tribal items
STOP Act would prohibit exporting sacred Native items, increase penalties for illegal trafficking of cultural objects

STOP Act reintroduction with Santa Fe Indian School Leadership Institute’s summer police academy students June 21.
Submitted photo

STOP Act reintroduction with Santa Fe Indian School Leadership Institute’s summer police academy students June 21.

WASHINGTON — On June 21, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M) reintroduced the bipartisan 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. 

U.S. Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) are cosponsors of the bill.

To announce the legislation, Heinrich hosted a meeting with students from the Santa Fe Indian School Leadership Institute’s Summer Policy Academy (SPA) in his office in Washington, D.C. The students shared a position paper and personal stories on the importance of the STOP Act, articulating their generation’s concern about fulfilling their sacred trust as generations before them have. SPA is designed for New Mexico high school juniors and rising seniors and convenes students for intensive sessions that focus on leadership, public policy, and community issues.

Heinrich said he was proud to work with tribes in New Mexico and across Indian country to craft the legislation to safeguard Native American items. He said all people can recognize the incredible beauty of American Indian art — from the remnants of ancient wonders that can explored and admired 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,” Heinrich said. “We need to take all possible action to stop the latter and help repatriate stolen culturally significant items to their rightful owners.” 

Udall said the theft and sale of sacred Native American cultural items is an assault on the cultural identity of Native American tribes and he was proud to join Heinrich and applauded his leadership with tribes on the legislation to stop the practice in its tracks.

“Native Americans have been the victims of theft and looting for generations,” Udall said. “We have passed laws to stop it, but people are exploiting the loopholes in our current laws to sell these objects as art. They are not pieces of art — theft not only robs tribes of sacred objects, it robs them of a piece of their spiritual identity. This bill is the strong action we need to put a stop to theft and sale and ensure tribes have a seat at the table in the fight.” 

The bill has been endorsed by tribes across Indian Country, including the Hopi Tribe, the Navajo 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.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begay thanked Heinrich for his leadership on the bipartisan bill that he hopes will strengthen protection laws for all of Indian country.

“I am also encouraged that this bill will make it clear that exportation of our sacred and traditional items out of the United States will be illegal,” Begaye said. “Our cultural and sacred items are an important part of who we are as Navajo and Indian people and it is important that they be protected and returned.”

Pueblo of Acoma Governor Kurt Riley said the Pueblo worked closely with Heinrich’s office in the development and strongly supports the legislation, which is designed to strengthen existing federal laws protecting Native American cultural objects.

“Unfortunately, Acoma has firsthand experience with the illegal removal and trafficking of our cultural objects,” Riley said. “It has been an uphill battle to secure their return.  However, we continue to fight for their return as their loss threatens the ability of our children to continue our cultural practices and thus threatens our identity as a people.” 

Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) said it stands in strong support of Heinrich’s efforts to address the theft, illegal sale and alienation of cultural, historical and ceremonial items from tribal homelands.

“The Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act of 2017 is an important advance in this effort, Pata said. “NCAI leadership is hopeful that this legislation will serve as a strong deterrent to illegal conduct, while facilitating the voluntary repatriation of cultural objects currently held by individuals.”  

Kirk Francis, president of the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) Sovereignty Protection Fund said Article 12 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognizes the right to continue cultural and spiritual traditions and practices.

“Regrettably, these rights are violated through the ongoing theft and commercial sale of our cultural, traditional, and sacred objects,” Francis said. “These illicit practices erode the foundations of our cultures and threaten our survival as distinct tribal nations. The Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act seeks the safe return of our objects and the end of illegal trafficking through stiffer penalties.”

Senator Heinrich originally introduced the STOP Act in 2016. The bill received widespread, bipartisan support and continues to demonstrate growing momentum. The STOP Act received a field hearing last year, held at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, which was a critical step in the legislative process to gather input and move toward passing the STOP Act into law. The hearing featured testimony from tribal leaders and federal agency officials.

Specifically, the STOP Act would:

Increase penalties 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 and related statutes. 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 policy for the United States of encouraging the voluntary return of tangible cultural heritage to tribal communities. The bill directs the secretaries of Interior, Homeland Security, and the State Department, as well as the Attorney General, to appoint liaisons to facilitate the voluntary return of cultural property and directs the secretary of the Interior to develop and maintain a list of contacts for the return of cultural property to which individuals and organizations can be referred. 

Establish a tribal working group to develop recommendations on the return of cultural heritage, the elimination of illegal commerce in cultural heritage, and repatriation of cultural heritage that has been illegally trafficked.

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