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Editorial: Rest of delegation should join fight for tribal artifacts

FOR THE RECORD: Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, had signed on as a co-sponsor of the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act, sponsored by Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., when this editorial was published calling on the New Mexico congressional delegation to support Heinrich’s efforts. He had not signed on at the time of the initial news reports.

Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M, wants the Government Accountability Office to recommend reforms to prevent the theft and sale of tribal items. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., wants to toughen federal laws regarding those who would try to make a buck off federally protected Native American items.

Together their efforts seek to end the lax oversight that almost allowed a colorful leather shield stolen decades ago from an Acoma Pueblo home to go up for auction in Paris. The EVE auction house was featuring religious items and art pieces from the Americas, Africa and Asia for sale earlier this year. It was a disgusting infringement on the cultural heritages of the peoples involved.

In the end, Acoma refused to pay what amounted to the auction house’s extortion fees in the name of “efficiency and discretion” to stop the sale. In great part because of pressure from U.S. officials, the shield was pulled from the auction, though it has yet to make it back to the states or the pueblo.

Pearce, who has been involved in the Acoma fight since at least March, has joined forces with Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc. to get the GAO “to examine how we can overhaul the way we currently protect these sacred items and make them more successful in their mission.”

His experience in Washington underlines his efforts to “make this system as efficient as possible” rather than “blindly introducing legislation that will only add to the bureaucracy or possibly duplicate current efforts.”

Heinrich is seeking a Republican co-sponsor for his bill, which would double the prison time to 10 years for stealing or unlawfully removing tribal objects from reservations, allow a two-year amnesty period for people to voluntarily return items obtained illegally, and prohibit dealers from exporting protected Native Americans items of cultural or historical importance for tribes to international markets.

The rest of the state’s delegation should join Pearce and Heinrich to present a united front against the theft of tribal patrimony. As representatives of a state with 19 pueblos and three reservations they should know better than most how culturally significant these items are, and the importance of convincing the rest of their respective chambers to protect them and their rightful owners.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.