Sacred ceremonial shield to be returned to the Pueblo of Acoma

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Brian Vallo, Governor of the Pueblo of Acoma, talks about the return of a the sacred Acoma Shield, stolen from the pueblo in the early 1970s. John Anderson, left, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico also addressed those gathered Monday at the offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

A sacred ceremonial shield stolen from the Pueblo of Acoma in the early 1970s is about to be repatriated to the pueblo after being saved from the auctioneer’s block in Paris.

The shield is currently in the custody of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and will be returned shortly to the pueblo, said John Anderson, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico.

The return of the more-than-century-old Acoma Shield was announced Monday during a joint news conference conducted by members of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Pueblo of Acoma, the FBI Albuquerque Office and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Acoma Shield apparently changed hands several times during the years it was missing. Its whereabouts came to the attention of Acoma tribal officials in May 2015 after they were alerted to its presence in a catalog of the EVE Auction House in Paris, said Brian Vallo, governor of the Pueblo of Acoma.

According to a translation of the item from the catalog: “Shield of war pueblo probably Acoma or Jemez XIX century or more old leather.”

“On the eve of that auction, we learned there was little we could do but, to our surprise, the shield did not sell and, to our knowledge, remained in France with its fate unknown,” he said.

In May 2016, Acoma embarked on a campaign to call public attention to the sale of the stolen shield. It also reached out to the auction house “to get the name of the consignor so the pueblo might seek the shield’s return privately,” Vallo said.

Instead, the auction house invited the pueblo to bid on it when it comes up for auction again. The expected auction price was $40,000.

Bidding on the sacred item would have been “a direct violation of Acoma tribal law,” Vallo said, and the pueblo declined to participate.

By this time, Acoma had sought the assistance of various agencies within the U.S. government to halt the auction of the sacred object and immediately repatriate it to the pueblo.

On the morning of the auction, “the auctioneer surprisingly announced that the shield had been withdrawn,” Vallo said. “What ensued was a determined and tenacious effort to bring the ceremonial shield home.”

The pueblo was able to prove to investigators that the shield had been stolen from the home of the pueblo’s caretaker, and the pueblo was the rightful owner. That ultimately resulted in a lawsuit being filed for its return.

The lawsuit marks the first time the United States filed an action to forfeit an item of cultural patrimony from any European auction house.

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Missing since the 1970s, the Acoma Shield was located at an auction house in Paris, France. It is now being repatriated with the Pueblo of Acoma.

U.S. government agencies worked with the government of France and, earlier this year, Jerold Collings of New Mexico came forward as the consignor of the shield.

He voluntarily agreed to return the shield to the Pueblo of Acoma at no cost and in an email exchange with pueblo leaders said he was “grateful the shield is in the hands of its rightful owner,” Vallo said.

Vallo wouldn’t reveal much about the pigment-on-rawhide shield that contains the face of a Kachina – or ancestral spirit. He did say that the shield serves as “a protector” and even in its absence was “referred to and acknowledged during prayer and ceremony.”

What he wants the public to know is “these are not works of art, they are communal property with great sacredness that must never leave the tribal lands.”

Added Anderson, “We need to recognize that such items hold a sacred place in Native American cultures. They are not collectors’ items or novelties. They should not be trafficked or sold, and certainly should not become objects of private profit.”

New Mexico Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, and Rep. Deb Haaland issued news releases Monday welcoming the shield’s long overdue return to the Pueblo of Acoma.

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