The law protects the export of sacred Native American objects from the United States

Flag, Ariz. — Federal penalties have been increased under the newly signed Act to Protect the Cultural Heritage of Native American Tribes, immediately criminalizing some crimes and doubling prison terms for anyone convicted of multiple crimes.

On December 21, President Joe Biden signed the Tribal Heritage Protection Act, a bill introduced in 2016. Along with tougher penalties, it prohibits the export of sacred Native American objects from the United States and establishes a certification process to distinguish the art. of sacred items

The effort was largely inspired by the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico and Arizona, who repeatedly saw sacred objects for auction in France. Tribal leaders issued impassioned pleas for the items to be returned, but were met with resistance and the fact that the United States had no mechanism in place to prevent the items from leaving the country.

“The STOP Act really stems from this problem, and you hear it over and over again,” said attorney Katie Class, who represents the Acoma Pueblo in the case and is a Wyandotte, Oklahoma citizen. “It’s really designed to link the existing domestic laws that protect tribal cultural heritage with the existing international mechanism.”

The law creates a certification system that helps clarify whether items are created as art and provides a pathway for the voluntary return of items that are part of a tribe’s cultural heritage. Federal agencies will work with Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians to determine what items should not be taken out of the United States and what items should be returned.

Information provided by tribes on those items is protected by public records laws.

While dealers and collectors often see these items as art to display and keep, tribes see these objects as living beings that are preserved in the community, said repatriation consultant Brian Vallo.

“These items remain sacred, they will never lose their significance,” said Vallo, former governor of the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico. They will never lose their power and place as a cultural item. And that’s why we’re so worried.”

The Tribes have seen several victories over the years:

In 2019, Finland agreed to return the ancestral remains of Native American tribes who once called the cliffs of Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado home. The remains and artifacts were discovered by a Swedish researcher in 1891 and kept in the collection of the National Museum of Finland.

– That same year, a ceremonial shield that disappeared from the Acoma Pueblo in the 1970s was returned to the tribe after a nearly four-year campaign involving U.S. senators, diplomats and prosecutors. A colorful circular shield depicting the face of a kachina, or ancestral spirit, was held at a Paris auction house.

– In 2014, after diplomacy and pleas for the return of the items, the Navajo Nation sent its representative to Paris to bid for items believed to be used in the Winter Healing Ceremony. The tribe secured several items and spent $9,000.

β€”In 2013, the Annenberg Foundation quietly bought nearly two dozen ceremonial items at an auction in Paris and later returned them to the Hopi, San Carlos Apache, and White Mountain Apache tribes in Arizona. The tribes said these items evoked the spirits of their ancestors and were taken in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

The STOP Act is tied to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires museums and universities that receive federal funding to disclose Native American items in their possession, inventory them, and return those items to tribes. Dependents and Native Hawaiians or their children notify and transmit.

The Department of the Interior has proposed a number of changes to strengthen NAGPRA and will provide public comment on them by mid-January.

The STOP Act increases the penalties for the illegal trafficking of Native American human remains from one year to one year and one day, thus making it a felony for the first offense. Smuggling of cultural items remains a crime in the first offense as mentioned in NAGPRA. The penalty for subsequent offenses will be increased from five years to 10 years for both.

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez of New Mexico, who introduced the House bill, said time will tell if the penalties are enough.

“We should always look at the laws we pass as living laws, so we can determine what improvements can be made,” he said.

Lee Kuwanusiyama, former director of cultural preservation for the Hopi tribe, said the increased penalties are helpful. But he wants to see countries embrace the principle of mutual respect and respect for the laws of independent Native American nations about what is rightfully theirs. He said that for the Hopi, items are held by the community and no individual has the right to sell or give them away.

These items are difficult to track down, but they often appear in underground markets, museums, shows and auction house catalogs, Vallo said.

He said that Finland, Germany and the United Kingdom recently plan to work with American tribes to understand what’s in their collections and talk about ways to bring back items of high cultural significance.

“I think if we can make progress, even with these three countries, it sends a strong message that there is a way to do this, there is a mutual reward at the end,” he said. And this is the most responsible thing to participate in.”


Fonseca covers Indigenous communities on the AP Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter: @FonsecaAP