Commentary by United States Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM). Martin Heinrich is New Mexico’s senior US Senator. He previously served as US Representative and as an Albuquerque City Councilor.
Last night, the Senate voted to pass my bipartisan legislation to prohibit the exporting of sacred Native American items and increase penalties for stealing and illegally trafficking Tribal cultural patrimony, the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act, and send it to President Biden’s desk to be signed into law.
For years, I have been working in close partnership with New Mexico’s Pueblos, the Jicarilla and Mescalero Apache Nations, the Navajo Nation, and Tribes across Indian Country to halt the trade of culturally significant items and repatriate stolen pieces that were trafficked illegally to their rightful owners.
This issue first came to my attention back in 2016 when then Pueblo of Acoma Governor Kurt Riley informed me that the Acoma shield, a sacred ceremonial object that had been stolen had been discovered on a list of Tribal artifacts up for bid at an art auction house in Paris, France. I immediately contacted then Secretary of State John Kerry and urged the U.S. State Department to take all possible action to help repatriate the shield and other stolen cultural items.
Thankfully, in the case of the Acoma shield, intense public outcry and diplomatic pressure were enough to prevent the illegal sale of cultural patrimony and return the item to the Pueblo. But it never should have come to that. In hundreds of other cases, Tribes have been unable to stop similar thefts and sales of their priceless religious and cultural items in international markets.
That’s why I joined with my Republican colleague U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to introduce the bipartisan STOP Act to increase penalties for stealing Tribal cultural items and explicitly prohibit the export of illegally obtained Tribal cultural heritage. Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernández and the late Congressman Don Young led the successful effort to pass the STOP Act in the House.
There is a clear and unequivocal difference between supporting American Indian art ethically and legally as opposed to dealing or exporting items that Tribes have identified as essential and sacred pieces of their cultural heritage. Once President Biden signs the STOP Act into law, we will take an important step forward in halting this illegal and immoral theft.