This story is a staff report from The Paper.

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Washington, DC – Native American governments are about to get some big help in their fights to protect and return their sacred items.

The Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act, a rare piece of bipartisan legislation to pass both chambers of Congress, was lauded by Native leaders for closing the gaps in existing federal laws governing the trafficking of sacred items and increasing penalties for those who do. The Act has been a personal priority for US Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, who first introduced it alongside national Native leaders in 2016 after a sacred shield stolen from the Acoma Pueblo in the 1970’s showed up in a French auction (it was since removed from auction and returned to Acoma).

“Our cultural patrimony is critical to the continuance of our culture, and to our survival. For over a century, the Pueblo of Acoma, as well as many tribes throughout the country, has experienced the illegal removal and trafficking of cultural items where they become lost for generations, absent during our most significant communal ceremonies,” Pueblo of Acoma Governor Brian Vallo told reporters when the bill was reintroduced in 2020.

The STOP Act increases penalties for trafficking in sacred items covered by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), creates a federal certification process for Native American and archeologically significant artifacts and creates a federal working group to advise and guide federal agencies on the recovery of stolen artifacts.


\U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich meets with Pueblo leaders, from left to right: Chairman E. Paul Torres of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, Former Governor Mark Mitchell of the Pueblo of Tesuque, Governor J. Michael Chavarria of Santa Clara Pueblo, and Governor Kurt Riley of Acoma Pueblo, September 25, 2018.

“As I drafted the STOP Act, I worked closely with New Mexico’s Pueblos, the Jicarilla and Mescalero Apache Nations, and the Navajo Nation. I’m proud that the legislation earned strong support across Indian Country and across party lines in both the House and Senate,” says Heinrich.

“Over these last six years, Senator Lisa Murkowski and I successfully built bipartisan momentum to get the STOP Act over the finish line and to the President’s desk. There is a clear difference between supporting American Indian art ethically and legally as opposed to dealing or exporting items that Tribes have identified as essential and sacred pieces of their cultural heritage. Once the STOP Act is signed into law, we will take an important step forward in halting the illegal and immoral trade of those culturally significant items and returning stolen pieces to their rightful owners.”

The bill passed the US Senate with unanimous consent earlier this week, just as national tribal leaders were convening for the White House’s Tribal Nations Summit. The bill, a rare piece of bipartisan legislation that actually passed both chambers of Congress, was first introduced by New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich in 2016 where it gained support but failed to pass. It was reintroduced in 2020 by Heinrich, a Democrat, and Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican. New Mexico’s other US Senator, Ben Ray Luján, is also a co-sponsor along with Senators Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Mike Crape (R-Idaho), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), James Lankford (R-Okla.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska).The House companion is led by U.S. Representatives Teresa Leger Fernández (D-N.M.), Don Young (R-Alaska), Tom Cole (R-Okla.), and Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) and was cosponsored by U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), Brian Mast (R-Fla.), Aumua Amata Radewagan (R-American Samoa), and Karen Bass (D-Calif.).

READ MORE: Commentary by US SEN MARTIN HEINRICH ON PASSAGE OF THE STOP ACT

Commentary: Safeguarding Tribal Patrimony

Commentary by United States Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM). Martin Heinrich is New Mexico’s senior US Senator. He previously served as US Representative and as an Albuquerque City Councilor. Last night, the…