Congress passes law to crack down on exports of sacred Native American items

By: - December 2, 2022 4:00 am

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez. (Photo by Gino Gutierrez for Source NM)

A cherished, century-old Acoma shield was stolen from the pueblo in the 1970s. Decades later, it showed up in a French auction catalog.

Congress this week sent a bill to President Joe Biden’s desk that aims to crack down on the export of Native American patrimony, defined as objects with lasting historical or cultural significance. 

The law known as the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony, or STOP Act makes it a crime punishable by fines and a year and a day in jail for those who export items like the Acoma shield. The penalty is 10 years for a second offense. The law allows some exceptions, like in cases where a tribe has relinquished possession of something. 

It also empowers U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to seize such things and return them to their rightful owners. And it offers support to a coalition of tribes across the country to come up with policies to begin the return of sacred items already outside the United States.

The artifacts that can no longer be exported are defined in the bill as funeral objects, human remains, items used in ceremonies, and items with ongoing historical, cultural or traditional uses to tribes.

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U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-Las Vegas, N.M.) sponsored the act. She said in a statement that the bill is a necessary step in keeping sacred things where they belong. 

“The STOP Act will explicitly prohibit the export of tribal cultural items obtained illegally and better enable their return if found overseas,” she said. 

In 2016, the FBI in New Mexico learned that the Acoma war shield, more than 100 years old, was up for auction in France. The United States Attorney’s Office in New Mexico then filed a lawsuit, the first of its kind, to get the Eve Auction House to forfeit the item, which was for sale for about $8,000, according to High Country News. 

Three years later, a settlement was reached, and the shield was surrendered to the United States embassy in Paris before being returned to the Acoma Pueblo. Acoma law prohibited the pueblo from buying the shield back. 

Leger Fernandez referenced the Acoma case in her statement about why the STOP Act passage matters. 

“This bill has long enjoyed bicameral, bipartisan support,” Leger Fernandez said. 

Of the 57 votes against the bill, 55 were from Republicans. The two Democrats who voted “no” are Kori Bush of Missouri and Ritchie Torres of New York.


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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard.