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Acoma Pueblo still awaits return of tribal shield

WASHINGTON – It’s been 18 months since a sacred tribal shield belonging to Acoma Pueblo turned up on a Paris auction block.

With help from the U.S. State Department, the pueblo convinced the foreign auction house to halt the sale. But Acoma Pueblo Gov. Kurt Riley told Congress Wednesday the shield still hasn’t been returned to New Mexico. Acoma’s elders – especially the medicine specialists – are growing impatient, he said.

“A big part of the problem is that the U.S. does not have an explicit ban on the export of these items,” Riley said at a Capitol Hill hearing, describing the response tribes often hear when they confront foreign art dealers selling their stolen artifacts.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, who has introduced a bill to ban such exports, suggested the Interior Department could do more administratively. Sen. Tom Udall, vice chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee that hosted Wednesday’s hearing, also noted that President Donald Trump’s administration has halted its review of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

“I hope the department is not abdicating its responsibilities to tribes by declining to develop its own plans to solve the problem given what we know,” Heinrich said.

John Tahsuda, principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at Interior, said the agency is being deliberate.

“We need to get this right,” Tashuda said. “The full responsibility isn’t just in our hands – the Department of Justice and the State Department have a role in this. We need to do it the right way so that our actions are defensible and we can proceed with prosecutions.”

Riley thanked the federal officials for their efforts on behalf of Acoma and other tribes, but he urged them to speed up their work.

“The sense of urgency is strong in my community,” Riley said, adding that Acoma Pueblo members frequently tell him, “The shield must come home. Please, just bring it home.”

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