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Tribes seek greater protections for sacred and cultural property

Filed Under: Environment | Law | National | Politics | World
More on: 114th, eddie paul torres, eddie torres, h.con.res.122, house, kurt russell, martin heinrich, navajo, new mexico, pueblo, russell begaye, s.3127, s.con.res.49, scia, senate, steve pearce, stop act, tom udall

Tribal leaders testify at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs field hearing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on October 18, 2016. From left: Governor Kurt Riley of Acoma Pueblo Governor Eddie Paul Torres of Isleta Pueblo, President Russell Begaye of the Navajo Nation. Photo by Senator Tom Udall

Tribal leaders are calling on the federal government to do more to prevent their sacred property from being sold to the highest bidder.

Tribes have become increasingly alarmed as auction houses around the world have put hundreds of items up for sale. Due to legal, financial, political and cultural barriers, they say it's incredibly difficult to them to recover what's rightfully theirs.

"Mooney is attached to everything," Governor Eddie Paul Torres of Isleta Pueblo said at a Congressional field hearing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Tuesday. "Even if it was stolen from a house, it was sold and somebody paid for it."

"When sacred objects are found," Torres continued, "you've got to figure out a way to get them without putting up that red flag. Because if you don't, it's going to disappear and you'll never see it again."

Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), at podium, and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) discussed efforts to protect tribal property at a press conference prior to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs field hearing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on October 18, 2016. Photo by Tara Gatewood

But even when law and politics are on their side, tribes face incredible hurdles. Acoma Pueblo, another New Mexico tribe, has been pleading with authorities in France to return a sacred shield that was stolen from the reservation in the 1970s.

"The Acoma shield belongs to the people of Acoma," Governor Kurt Riley said of an item that remains in legal and diplomatic limbo thousands of miles away. "Inherently, it belongs to us."

The Navajo Nation has taken the drastic step of sending leaders to France to reacquire sacred items. But those efforts come with significant drawbacks because collectors and dealers start demanding more money, President Russell Begaye said.

"These sacred objects are not to be studied, hung on walls to be admired or cataloged and placed in storage bins in annexes across the world," Begaye told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. "They were and are constructed to maintain our sacredness and the wholeness of our people."

Indianz.Com on YouTube: Legislative Efforts to Protect Tribal Cultural Patrimony (Video by Tara Gatewood)

Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), a member of the committee, chaired the field hearing as lawmakers from both parties take greater notice of the problem. He's sponsoring S.Con.Res.49, otherwise known as the PROTECT Patrimony Resolution, which calls on the federal government to work more closely with tribes to stop the theft, sale and export of tribal items and to return them to their rightful owners.

"Some people are exploiting the loopholes in our current laws -- laws that are meant to stop the theft of important cultural items," Udall said at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in downtown Albuquerque. "And they have exported deeply important sacred objects to other countries to be sold as art."

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) also attended the hearing. He's sponsoring another bill -- S.3127, the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act (STOP Act) -- that would increase penalties for people who traffic in tribal property.

"While we must improve federal law to create a stronger legal deterrence, we also need to change the hearts and minds of art collectors and dealers who are engaging in it," Heinrich said.

Dealing or exporting items that tribes have identified as essential and sacred pieces of their cultural heritage must be...

Posted by Senator Martin Heinrich on Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Senator Martin Heinrich on Facebook: Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act (#StopAct)

The hearing, though, took a bizarre turn when a non-Indian professor presented boxes containing what he said were sacred items to the tribes. In his testimony, he urged lawmakers not to take a "punitive" approach when it comes to collectors and dealers.

But tribal leaders were clearly disturbed by the gesture due to the unknown origin of the items. They appeared to be stored in cardboard boxes -- one was a shoe box.

On September 21, the House passed H.Con.Res.122, another version of the PROTECT Patrimony Resolution. The bill was introduced by Rep. Steve Pearce (R-New Mexico).

The Senate passed the bill on September 29. But lawmakers replaced the text of H.Con.Res.122 with that of S.Con.Res.49.

Since the two versions are slightly different, the House would need to take action before the measure can be sent to President Barack Obama for a potential signature.

The committee approved S.Con.Res.49 on September 7 and, on September 29, it cleared the Senate, although in a modified form as H.Con.Res.122.

Since the measure was changed after passage in the House on September 12, Congress would need to take additional action before it can be sent to President Barack Obama for his signature.

With additional reporting by Tara Gatewood from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Oversight FIELD Hearing on "The Theft, Illegal Possession, Sale, Transfer and Export of Tribal Cultural Items." (October 18, 2016)

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Bill to protect tribal cultural property gains steam on Capitol Hill (9/20)
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Judge grants warrant for sacred shield stolen from Acoma Pueblo (09/01)
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