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Acoma pueblo celebrates return of cultural items

U.S. Attorney for New Mexico John Anderson, left, Bureau of Indian Affairs special agent Franklin Chavez II and Pueblo of Acoma Gov. Kurt Riley tour Sky City after the repatriation of several culturally significant items to the tribe. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

PUEBLO OF ACOMA – Culturally significant items stolen from the Acoma people were returned to the tribe during a celebratory and often emotional ceremony at the pueblo’s cultural center on Wednesday.

Among the most significant was an Acoma shield used in religious ceremonies, recovered from a Montana art gallery in 2016 by Bureau of Indian Affairs agents.

“According to our traditional laws here at the pueblo, these items are not pieces of art. They are not owned by any one single person,” said Pueblo of Acoma Gov. Kurt Riley, whose remarks went in and out of the Keres language. “Rather, their creation and use are for a spiritual function meant to benefit the entire community. They belong to the people of Acoma.”

Pueblo of Acoma Gov. Kurt Riley, right, hugs Bureau of Indian Affairs Special Agent Franklin Chavez II after a repatriation ceremony at the Sky City Cultural Center and Haak'u Museum on Wednesday. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Pueblo of Acoma Gov. Kurt Riley, right, hugs Bureau of Indian Affairs Special Agent Franklin Chavez II after a repatriation ceremony at the Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum on Wednesday. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Riley and other tribal officials and citizens were joined by New Mexico U.S. Attorney John Anderson and BIA Special Agent Franklin Chavez II, who assisted in the investigation and repatriation of the shield.

The shield disappeared from the pueblo more than 20 years ago, said Sean Sullivan, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Other unlawfully taken items, including dolls and pottery, were recovered at antiquities shows in Albuquerque and Santa Fe in 2015.

“We must be proactive and vigilant in protecting the integrity of our Native American legacy,” Anderson said. “It is our collective responsibility to ensure that our Native American cultures and the objects that embody that culture are not unlawfully converted into objects of private profit.”

After the ceremony, the group toured Sky City, where the Acoma people have lived since the 1100s and where, on Wednesday afternoon, the wind relentlessly whipped up sand and dirt.

Everett Garcia Sr. sits on the advisory board of the pueblo’s Historic Preservation Office, which is consulted about the origin of possible Acoma items on the market.

He has also taken on religious roles in the tribe in the past.

“As individuals, it hurts us. Why do people not respect our religion?” Garcia Sr. said, walking along the rows of mesa-top dwellings after the ceremony. “As a person who has taken on a religious responsibility, it really hurts because you know what (the shield) represents and what it does for our people.”

The pueblo is still fighting for the return of a similar shield that was put up for sale at a Paris auction house in 2016.

That shield was stolen in the early 1970s, along with several others, from an Acoma woman’s childhood home, according to a civil lawsuit filed in District Court seeking its return.

While the EVE Auction House did not ultimately sell the shield, it hasn’t yet been repatriated to its homeland.

Chavez said he is hopeful the shield will be returned to the Pueblo of Acoma in 2019.

The pueblo’s governor said there is currently no law prohibiting the sale of Native American cultural items across international borders, something the pueblo and its attorneys are working on with the state’s congressional delegation.

“We continue our fight for the Acoma shield,” Riley said.