Remember the STOP Act? The Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act had its humble beginnings in 2016 due to a rash of cultural items from multiple pueblos, Navajo, and Hopi, being put up for auction in Paris. Acoma Pueblo Governor Kurt Riley was intrumental in the push for these items to return and was there on that July 6 day in 2016, alongside New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich, as they introduced the bill. The STOP Act, for a moment, seemed unstoppable! Thirty years had passed since the introduction of NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. It was 1990, and being Indian was very “in”—think Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves.
The current law requires federally funded institutions and museums to consult with descendants, federally recognized Native American tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations to return Native human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony to their rightful descendant communities. That piece of legislation was monumental for tribes but flawed in many ways. It had no teeth. Prosecutions were rare, and the law had no bearing on private land and international export of stolen items.
The STOP Act is supposed to change things. It would increase penalties and prosecution. It would prohibit the export of cultural objects obtained in violation of NAGRPA or the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. Further, it established a working group to ensure coordination between federal agencies, tribes, museums and places of academia, including groups doing repatriation and cultural identification work. And to top it all off, the bill was bipartisan—backed by Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski from Alaska with the support of many others in her party. “By safeguarding and repatriating tribal cultural heritage, we are protecting Alaska Native and American Indian history and culture, and helping correct longstanding cultural oppression. In addition to returning illegally traded items, the bill also enacts harsher penalties on those who illegally traffic these relics and artifacts. If this bill is signed into law, we can ensure that items of cultural significance remain with, or are returned to, their rightful owners and that Native identities are respected,” Murkowski said. Statements like that don’t often come from a Trump supporter.
There was opposition to the bill. One major opponent is the Authentic Tribal Art Dealers Association (ATADA), a group of art collectors and dealers around the world. ATADA claims that the new STOP Act places an unfair burden on dealers to prove legitimate ownership and that the item is not an item of patrimony. Kim Martindale, president of ATADA, made these remarks during sworn testimony last year. “This is the third version of STOP introduced since 2016. It replicates and even expands many provisions rejected in prior versions of the bill. Like earlier iterations of STOP, this bill will embargo lawfully owned Indian artifacts, will fail to provide notice to the public of what Indian objects are prohibited from export, will impose burdensome export requirements on very low value items and allow seizure without constitutional due process.”
The bill left the Senate with all that love and seemed destined to become law once it got out of the House. Easy as it sounds, the bill stalled before the end of this congressional session. No one really knows why either—or at least maybe they don’t want to point fingers. Conversations with Heinrich’s staff, pueblo attorneys and other advocates yielded the same answer. “I really can’t honestly tell you a reason. You should ask …” was often the reply.
Was it just bad timing? But how? Indigenous people are ’90s hot. Our comeback is hotter now than ever! Furthermore, even the great orange father himself, Donald Trump, tried to use our initiatives for his own gain when his administration made a spectacle out of repatriation of some ancestral remains back to the Mesa Verde region in the fall of 2020.
Did it just get overlooked, as our country was in the middle of a pandemic? Whatever happened is in the past now, and the old team is together again. Democratic Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández is ready to take the football and move the act past the goal line. “In New Mexico we honor and cherish the history and culture of Native American communities,” said Fernández. “We also respect that tribal nations have the right to decide how they will preserve and handle their own cultural heritage. Unfortunately, the theft and illegal trafficking of sacred tribal items for profit remain a worldwide problem.”
The Pueblo of Acoma will again stand beside Sen. Heinrich in pushing this bill toward becoming law. Acoma Governor Brian Vallo was able to build upon the work of his predecessor, Gov. Kurt Riley, and was able to see years of negotiation and public attention result in the repatriation of the historic “Acoma Shield.” On Nov. 18, 2019 Vallo—alongside his staff, council and other community members—took back ownership of the shield that was the impetus for the legislation.
Governor Vallo released this statement on the current STOP Act work: “The reintroduction of the STOP Act is timely and so critical to our nation-to-nation relationship. During this pandemic, the Pueblo of Acoma, like many tribes throughout the country, was forced to modify the ways in which we gather and interact as family and community for the sake of mitigating the virus and protecting our people. In anticipation of reengaging with our Acoma culture, it is imperative that we also maintain the momentum where the protection of our cultural heritage items is concerned.”
Sen. Heinrich will again lead this charge on the Senate side and believes this next attempt will go well. “We have the support—we have the momentum. It’s time to get the STOP Act across the finish line.” So will attempt number four stick? Indian artifacts are big business for many, but it’s a business hopefully soon to be reined in.