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Bill protecting Native objects gets hearing

Almost a year after it was introduced by Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, a bill that seeks to protect Native American artifacts had a hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Heinrich promoted the bipartisan Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act before the panel on Wednesday. Fellow New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall is the committee’s vice chairman. The STOP Act was one of seven bills heard by the committee. The hearing was the first by the committee since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The STOP Act increases penalties for illegally trafficking tribal cultural patrimony, Heinrich said. Patrimony refers to objects possessing cultural, traditional, or historical importance to the heritage of a group.

It also prohibits the export of the objects and creates an export certification system, which the senator said would protect sacred objects under international law.

“It also encourages the voluntary return of sacred objects held in private collections, because the highest priority of everyone involved in this issue is to see these sacred items return home to where they belong,” Heinrich told the committee.

Heinrich used the return of the stolen shield to Acoma Pueblo as an example of the need for the legislation. The ceremonial shield was to have been auctioned off in Paris. Through public pressure and diplomatic efforts, the shield was returned to the pueblo in November.

“However, this only happened through the cooperation of the individual who put the shield up for auction in the first place,” Heinrich said. “There is still no federal law prohibiting the export of items like the shield and requiring the cooperation of foreign governments in recovering them.”

He said that in other cases, tribes in New Mexico and across the nation have been forced “to effectively pay a ransom or had to stand by and watch the sale of their priceless religious and cultural items in international markets.”

It is a federal crime to sell protected Native American cultural objects in the United States, the senator said. But he said penalties are not as high as in other statutes.

Heinrich also said prosecutions are far too infrequent to deter people from smuggling and selling the objects.

“In addition, there is no explicit ban on exporting these items to foreign countries, where they might be sold at auction – a fact that was cited by the French government when they initially declined to stop the auction of the Acoma shield,” Heinrich said.

Udall said at the hearing that he supported the legislation.

“It will provide Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations with the tools to prevent the theft, sale, and export of their cultural patrimony,” Udall said, thanking Heinrich for his leadership on the bill.

Heinrich is confident the legislation will be signed into law this year, spokesman Aaron Morales told the Journal.

U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., is the sponsor of companion legislation in the House. It had a hearing before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples in September.

GREAT OUTDOORS ACT: U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small told the Journal the House will likely vote on the Great Outdoors Act by the end of July.

Torres Small is a co-sponsor of the House bill. The Senate version passed earlier this month. The legislation, which has the support of President Donald Trump, would fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million per year and provide $1.9 billion per year for five years to help clear the maintenance backlog at national parks, wildlife refuges and other federal lands.

“It is overwhelmingly bipartisan,” Torres Small said. “… I don’t expect major changes (to what the Senate passed). There could be some additional components … for existing projects and maintenance. If there are differences, we’ll look at the fastest way to get them resolved.”

Scott Turner: sturner@abqjournal.com

 

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