The "Sky City" village at the Pueblo of Acoma in New Mexico is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States. Photo: Scott Catron

'Homecoming': Pueblo of Acoma set to reclaim sacred item

The Acoma Shield is finally coming home after years in legal and political limbo.

The sacred item was taken from the Pueblo of Acoma in New Mexico in the early 1970s. It ended up in France, where it went up for auction until diplomatic efforts halted the sale at the last minute back in 2016.

The shield, however, remained in France, triggering new legal and political battles. But those are finally over and the tribe is ready to reclaim an important piece of its heritage.

"Acoma has looked forward to this day for the last four years, steadfastly working with many people for this result," Governor Brian D. Vallo said on Monday morning. "The Pueblo of Acoma is deeply grateful for the assistance of the many parties who have supported us in our efforts to reclaim the Acoma Shield.”

A ceremonial shield stolen from Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico is the subject of a legal and diplomatic battle after it was put up for sale by a private auction house in France. Image from EVE Auction House
The tribe is hosting a press conference at the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the morning to discuss the historic return of the Acoma Shield. Gov. Vallo will be joined by U.S. Attorney John Anderson, James Langenberg of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and James “Jim” James from the BIA.

"The Pueblo of Acoma has waited years for the return of the Shield after successfully halting its sale at auction," Vallo said. "The shield is integral to the cultural sustainability of the Acoma people and is a significant item of our cultural patrimony."

Vallo credited federal officials with helping secure the return of its sacred property. But he also thanked a New Mexico man named Jerold Collings, whose family had possession of the item for "several decades."

According to a claim filed in federal court, Collings "inherited" the shield after his mother passed away in 1984. He said it had been kept in a box until around 2012 and he denied any knowledge of it being stolen or taken from the tribe.

"Claimant is an innocent owner of the shield," the filing said of Collings.

In a separate court filing, Collings admitted he shipped the shield to the EVE Auction House in France. He denied having it "smuggled out of the United States."

But after the tribe informed Collings "of the shield’s importance to the Pueblo, he cooperated with Pueblo leadership to secure its return to Acoma," Gov. Vallo said. A settlement agreement was reached in July, paving the way for its release to federal officials. From there, the shield will be given back to the tribe.

"Its homecoming is critical and highly sensitive," Vallo added. "With absolutely no intent to diminish the great effort of achieving this momentous return, we continue to ask the public for privacy as the Pueblo prepares to welcome the shield home."

For years, the EVE Auction House has repeatedly sold tribal property over the objections of Indian nations and the United States. The company has long insisted that it acquired all items in compliance with French law.

Since the items are outside of the U.S., laws such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act cannot be used to reclaim them. In the case of the Acoma Shield, federal authorities instead cited the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and a stolen goods law in hopes of having it returned to its rightful owner.

The lack of protections prompted lawmakers to introduce the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act. The bipartisan bill, also known as the STOP Act, makes it a crime to export tribal items from the U.S. It also increase penalties for stealing and illegally trafficking tribal cultural patrimony.

“No one’s cultural, sacred, and historical items should be stolen and trafficked for profit, but for centuries Native American property has been taken from our communities and sold off to the highest bidder," said Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, which is located near Acoma. "Our people are not just some long ago culture forced into extinction – we are still here and we still practice our traditional ceremonies and pilgrimages."

"The STOP Act would ensure that our communities regain the authority to determine how and where our loved ones and property are shared, while ensuring those responsible for taking our sacred property bare the consequences,” said Haaland, who is one of the first two Native women to serve in Congress.

House Committee on Natural Resources: House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States: Legislative Hearing - September 19, 2019

The House version of the bill is H.R.3846. A hearing took place before the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States on September 19.

"Despite the existing federal laws in place, trafficking in tribal cultural heritage items continues unabated, especially internationally," Governor Timothy Manchego of the Pueblo of Santa Ana said in his testimony in support of the STOP Act.

"According to the Government Accountability Office, tribal cultural heritage items are being illegally obtained, transported, and sold in overseas auctions and other marketplaces," Manchego told lawmakers, citing a GAO report from September 2018. "A quick look at past auction catalogs of places where Pueblos’ cultural heritage items have been sold reveals the sheer enormity of tribal cultural heritage items that have left the country."

The Senate version is S.2165. A hearing has not yet been held in the chamber.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States: Legislative Hearing - September 19, 2019

Until such legislation becomes law, Indian nations will have to rely on other channels to secure the return of their property. Diplomatic efforts recently resulted in an agreement for the Republic of Finland to return ancestral remains and artifacts that were taken more than a hundred years ago from a site now known as Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. Pueblo tribes will be among the recipients.

“The agreement recognizes the importance of treating these individuals and their descendants, who will be welcoming them home, with dignity. It also reaffirms how important that Native American remains be treated with care and respect," said Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, the Trump administration official who oversees the BIA.

Acoma Shield Press Conference
From the Department of Justice:

Federal officials and Tribal Leaders of the Pueblo of Acoma will hold a press conference at 10:00 a.m., on Monday, November 18, 2019, at the offices of the Bureau of the Indian Affairs in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to make a significant announcement regarding an important item of cultural patrimony.

WHO: The Honorable John C. Anderson
U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico

The Honorable Brian Vallo
Governor of the Pueblo of Acoma

James C. Langenberg
Special Agent in Charge, FBI Albuquerque Division

James “Jim” James
Deputy Bureau Director-Field Operations, Bureau of Indian Affairs
Member, Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh

WHAT: Press Conference

WHEN: Monday, November 18, 2019 at 10:00 a.m. MST

WHERE: Bureau of Indian Affairs – Southwest Regional Office
Conference Room 133 on the First Floor
1001 Indian School Road NW
Albuquerque, NM 87104

Government Accountability Office Report
GAO-18-537: Native American Cultural Property: Additional Agency Actions Needed to Assist Tribes with Repatriating Items from Overseas Auctions (September 2018)

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