ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Legislation that would prohibit Native American items protected by U.S. laws from being exported to international markets has come under criticism from dealers and collectors as tribal leaders defend the proposals.
At a news conference in Santa Fe on Friday, Gov. Kurt Riley of Acoma Pueblo said misconceptions about the proposals in Congress have led to fears that dealers who collect and sell tribal antiquities will have to relinquish their entire inventories. There are also misconceptions that the proposals will prohibit the export of all U.S. tribal art and antiques, and embolden tribes to randomly suggest items are sacred in order to take them out of the hands of dealers, he said.
"Let me be clear. This is absolutely not true," Riley said. "Instead, the STOP Act and other legislation only strengthen existing federal statutes."
The STOP Act, introduced by U.S Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, seeks stiffer penalties for stealing and exporting items considered sacred by Native Americans and already protected by U.S. laws. It also would set an amnesty period for people to voluntarily return cultural items collected in violation of existing laws.
It was introduced last month following a diplomatic push from top federal officials to halt the auction of a ceremonial shield that was stolen from Acoma Pueblo in the 1970s and set for sale in May at a Paris auction house.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in New Mexico has since sought a federal warrant seeking the shield's return to the U.S.
Heinrich's legislation also follows a proposed resolution in the U.S. House from GOP Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico.
Pearce is urging federal agencies to seek the return of certain tribal items from international auction houses. He also has called for a congressional watchdog to review how the government investigates the theft and sale of tribal items and what reforms can be made to further prevent looting and trafficking, saying tribes' religious items are lost and later sold on the black market all too often.
The attempt in Santa Fe by Acoma Pueblo leaders and others to clarify the intent of the Pearce and Heinrich proposals comes as art dealers and collectors who object to them prepare to gather in Santa Fe for a premier tribal antiquities show next week, followed by major contemporary and traditional art markets in the New Mexico capital this month.
"These next few weeks are an important and special time for the Indian art and antique world. Thousands of artists, dealers, buyers, spectators and the public will descend upon Santa Fe in celebration of native art and culture," Riley said. "However, there is a clear distinction between what is meant to be art and what is considered sacred."
Some collectors contend laws lack clarity on who determines which objects are sacred. In a letter to Sen. John Barrasso, the chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, one New Mexico attorney argued he and fellow collectors have not had a forum to weigh in on the legislation as tribes have. He requested that federal hearings on Henirich's bill be held in Albuquerque, Santa Fe or Phoenix — three major cities in Southwest that are art hubs for collectors.
"Who is going to say the item is a cultural item, who is going to say when it was placed in the market for sale and who was the individual who sold it?" Jim Owens, the collector, wrote. "No where in Senator Heinrich's bill ... are these issues addressed."