The case of a shield claimed by the Pueblo of Acoma as a sacred ceremonial object – now resting at a Paris auction house – drags on.
The pueblo believes it is one of several similar shields stolen from a tribal home in the early 1970s.
But Jerold Collings of Mule Creek, the man who provided the shield to the EVE Auction House, said in court documents filed Thursday that he inherited it from his mother after she died in 1984.
“I know for a fact that Mr. Collings never stole it or knew there was any problem whatsoever,” said Collings’ attorney Mark Rhodes.
Collings also claims that the shield has been in his family since before the enforcement of the federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act, making it not subject to forfeiture.
Still, should the shield prove to be Acoma in origin, Rhodes said his client would be willing to work with the pueblo to return it to them. But he’d like to know the basis for the tribe’s claim.
“He is fine with it going back to Acoma Pueblo if they are the rightful owners,” Rhodes said. “That’s not unreasonable.”
Ownership can be difficult to discern, Rhodes said, as Native Americans are culturally not as reliant on written records.
The theft itself, the tribe writes in court documents, is believed to have been reported to the tribal sheriff.
“There is no written record of the burglary, but it was not common practice for reports to be memorialized in writing with the tribal sheriff,” according the complaint filed in New Mexico’s U.S. District Court.
Rhodes, who deals with cases involving Native American artifacts, said that’s often the root of much of the conflict that can surround such cases.
“You have a very distinct difference in cultures. Native Americans will do a lot more of their history orally. Our Anglo legal system is based on a lot of writing,” Rhodes said. “That puts the individuals who end up with these pieces in an awkward position.”
In a statement, Acoma Gov. Brian Vallo said the pueblo is amenable to working with Collings for the return of one of its “most significant items of cultural patrimony.”
“We are hopeful that through forfeiture proceedings or direct negotiations with Mr. Collings, the process for timely return of the shield will be realized,” Vallo said. “We appreciate Mr. Collings coming forward to participate in the process of resolving this matter. Without doubt, the Acoma Shield remains a critical component in our cultural fabric and must come home.”
The shield remains in France, although EVE backed down from selling it in 2017 after international outcry. The U.S. Department of Justice is working to have it repatriated to the American government.
The tribe celebrated the return of another ceremonial shield last month. That one was discovered at a Montana art gallery.