Jonathan Sims is a media producer and former appointed official at the Pueblo of Acoma. He covers news and writes a column on Indigenous People's issues for The Paper.

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This piece is offered as a part of our Indigeneity series: news and analysis from Native journalists and columnists.

When you toss a pebble into the huge pond that is “the world,” you have no idea how far those waves will travel and where they will eventually land. The STOP Act is one of those ripples. The Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act, began in an office inside the administration building at the Pueblo of Acoma in 2015. A quick “FYI” email had been received from the tribe’s lawyers: they had been tipped off about an auction of Native American artifacts and cultural items in Paris.

I remember this day clearly. I was in the office that day as Tribal Secretary for the Pueblo. Interpreter Christopher Garcia had looked through the forwarded PDF of items for auction and there it was, an Acoma Shield. We took the image to our other officials including then-Governor Fred Vallo, 1st Lt. Governor Robert Moquino and 2nd Lt. Kurt Riley. Everyone was shocked; to be honest, there were items from every tribal nation it seemed. So many items from Pueblo, Hopi and Navajo Nations, it was a moment of sadness to see these up for sale, knowing how important these items are. In Acoma, traditional law dictates that these items cannot be sold or exchanged for money.

What do we do? The first call was to the lawyers. And next was to figure out exactly how this item became part of this auction and what our options were. The Pueblo sent letters to legal authorities in France, the French consulate as well as the EVE – Estimations Ventes aux Enchères auction house itself, but were denied any action. The French auction house did not have much empathy when it came to the “cultural objects” of other people. Apparently, the auction house is hundreds of years old, an establishment in their eyes. The letter from the Eve Auction house in response to our protest was simply, “You are welcome to bid on the item.” *

Weeks later, Acoma officials and staff were huddled around a computer as the auction went forward. I think we all held our breath as the item came up. Kurt Riley remembers that day as well: “We were all watching the Paris auction the first time it went up and I remember it. Time was so slow, then it didn’t sell, that first time. That gave us the opportunity to do something and then it came up for auction the second time and it got withdrawn. So that’s when I remember the Senator starting the conversations in earnest to get it back.”  

Senator Heinrich was there in 2016 when former Governor Riley, who continued his predecessor Gov. Vallo’s work, went before the world at the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. to publicly call on the French government to halt that second auction. We were in the conference room watching the internet feed as Governor placed that ripple out into the world that day. Mr. Riley explains: “The bottom line is there was nothing in place on the books as far as the laws that would help us get it back. I remember talking to the State Department and yes, even the FBI and their cultural person. Their lawyers were talking to DOJ and there was just nothing that they could do. There was no law that they could use. There were no inter-country or international agreements in place. I remember the State Department said the United States is so used to sending items of patrimony back to their country of origin. This would be the first time that the United States would ask for something back.”

What would ensue is a four-year battle to get the Acoma Shield back home successfully. During that time, the STOP Act was formed. There had been in law NAGPRA, The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. But the major difference was NAGPRA only covered federal land and agencies receiving federal monies; its reach didn’t include mechanisms to halt the export and sale of trafficked or stolen items. And there were no real teeth in terms of prison sentences for offenders.

What the STOP Act does is strengthen prison terms from 5 to 10 years for individuals convicted of selling, purchasing, using for profit, or transporting for sale or profit human remains or cultural items that were illegally obtained. 

Not to say that this Act didn’t have its detractors. Many in the collector community, including most prominently the group ATADA, the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association, were not in favor of the bill, often stating that it would hinder tourism and Native artisans. In 2019 then ATADA President Kim Martindale said, “These items were lawfully owned by private collectors,” as she stated how her organization urged members to “give back items, to support tribal goals.” 

What groups like ATADA don’t like talking about is the large amount of stolen cultural items being traded in this country and beyond, often with New Mexico as the hub for this offense. There have been instances of local tribes having to send undercover agents to local “antique shows” to find evidence of stolen items. Often these collectors know what is appropriate and may keep some items from being “publically” sold, thus creating an underground market for these items. Try using this line and seeing what you find at collector shows: “What else you got that’s interesting?” Results can be scary.

Just last week in Albuquerque, Ohkay Owingeh and Dine’ dancer Ashkia Trujillo had his own and his children’s dance regalia stolen out of his truck parked in a local hotel lot. This type of thing happens more often than you would imagine. He was one of the lucky ones; after much news attention, a family who had bought the items off the street realized they were stolen and returned them. That is often how these items get into the market. The other major way – the need for money can be too much and our own people sell items, although they know they shouldn’t.

In many ways, the fact that the STOP Act started with a shield is fitting. “You know, the shield is for protection,” said Riley. “There was a need, and this shield found its way back to us. But it went around the world to understand what was happening and what needed to happen. It opened many people’s eyes and hearts to what was going on. Then it came home, and now that journey and the work that resulted from that journey protects not just our Pueblo’s cultural items but also those of all the Indigenous people within the United States. The 500-plus tribes in the United States. Now they have a chance to prevent anything from leaving the country in the future.” 

The ripple and the bill that became of it now heads to the President’s desk to be signed into law.

*Editor’s note: According to High Country News, EVE described the item as: a “Very rare war shield. Probably Acoma or Jemez, 19th century or older.” The auction house valued the shield at around 7,000 euros, or $7,800.