Commentary: WASHINGTON, D.C. (Nov. 8, 2017) -- Today, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) delivered opening remarks at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing to consider the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act, a bipartisan bill he introduced to prohibit the exporting of sacred Native American items and increase penalties for stealing and illegally trafficking tribal cultural patrimony.
The STOP Act has received widespread, bipartisan support and continues to demonstrate growing momentum. The hearing is critical step in the legislative process to gather input and move toward passing the STOP Act into law, and featured testimony from federal agency officials and tribal leaders, including Governor Kurt Riley of the Pueblo of Acoma.
“I'm proud to welcome the growing bipartisan support for my legislation to safeguard sacred Native American items,” said Senator Heinrich. “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. I want to thank Chairman Hoeven and Vice Chairman Udall for holding a hearing on the STOP Act and Pueblo of Acoma Governor Kurt Riley for his testimony. I will continue working with my colleagues and tribal communities to ensure we build on this momentum so we can help repatriate stolen culturally significant items back to their rightful owners.”
Earlier this year, Senator Heinrich announced the introduction of the STOP Act 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.
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 more than 20 individual tribes.
U.S. Senators 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.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), and James Lankford (R-Okla.) are cosponsors of the bill.
Senator Heinrich’s remarks as prepared for delivery are 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.
I would also like to thank the members of this committee who are cosponsors of this legislation—I believe that eight out of the 15 members of the committee have signed on in support.
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 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.
This issue came up last year, when Pueblo of Acoma Governor Kurt Riley discovered that a sacred ceremonial shield had been stolen and was about to be sold to the highest bidder in Paris.
I look forward to hearing Governor Riley’s testimony today so he can tell us all about the devastating impact cultural theft has on communities like his.
When Governor Riley informed me about this robbery of the Pueblo’s cultural patrimony last year, 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.
But the case is still pending, and the shield has still not been returned to the Pueblo.
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 as high as other similar statutes, like the National Stolen Property Act.
Prosecutions are too infrequent to deter criminals from smuggling and selling these objects.
And 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 exporting these objects and establishes a federal policy to encourage the voluntary return of sacred objects held in private collections.
While improving federal law to create a stronger legal deterrence, if we are going to end cultural theft, we also need to change the hearts and minds of collectors and dealers who are engaging in it.
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 more than twenty individual tribes.
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 introduced the STOP Act earlier this year, 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 out of this committee and work with me to pass it in the full Senate as soon as possible.