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U.S. Lawmakers Propose Ban on Export of Tribes' Sacred Items

by Mary Hudetz .
Sunday Jul 21, 2019
In this April 15, 2019 file photo, U.S. Reps. Ben Ray Luján, left, and Debra Haaland of New Mexico speak at a field hearing of a House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources in Santa Fe, N.M., about the affects of air pollution on sacred Native American cultural sites
In this April 15, 2019 file photo, U.S. Reps. Ben Ray Luján, left, and Debra Haaland of New Mexico speak at a field hearing of a House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources in Santa Fe, N.M., about the affects of air pollution on sacred Native American cultural sites  (Source:AP Photo/Morgan Lee, File)

A group of U.S. lawmakers made another push Thursday to ban collectors and vendors from exporting Native American ceremonial items to foreign markets, including Paris, where there has been uproar over auction houses listing tribal pieces for sale over the years.

The lawmakers introduced legislation that would increase penalties within the United States for trafficking objects that tribes hold sacred by increasing prison time from five years to 10 years for violating the law more than once.

At the same time, the bill would establish a framework for collectors to return protected items to tribes and avoid facing penalties.

The change was proposed by a group that includes New Mexico Democrats Sen. Martin Heinrich, U.S. Reps. Ben Ray Lujan and Deb Haaland.

In 2016, Heinrich blamed federal legal loopholes for stifling efforts to retrieve a ceremonial shield from a Paris auction house that year.

"It is only right for other countries to respect ownership of the sacred treasures, artifacts and other items belonging to Native Americans," U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, said Thursday. He and Haaland are among four Native American representatives in Congress.

Cole and Haaland are among sponsors of the legislation in the House. Heinrich and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, have introduced a Senate version.

Lujan, who is the assistant House speaker, said he was confident the bipartisan legislation would pass.

U.S. law prohibits the trafficking of certain items domestically but does not explicitly ban dealers from exporting them, according to lawmakers.

Collectors have expressed concern that the legislative efforts hurt the market for Native American artifacts.

Last year, a federal report found the number of Native American cultural items listed for bidding at five Paris auction houses declined after outcry led French dealers to halt the sale of the Acoma Pueblo ceremonial shield in May 2016.

Tribal leaders said the circular shield was taken from their village in New Mexico decades ago before appearing for sale on the auction house's website.

In 2016, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 220 items were listed in Paris auction catalogs with less than a third of the items marked as sold. By year's end, the number of items listed dropped 75 percent.

Last week, a settlement agreement in U.S. court in New Mexico called for the Eve auction house to release the shield to the U.S. Embassy in Paris, so it could be returned to Acoma Pueblo.

The agreement involved Acoma Pueblo and Jerold Collings, a resident of New Mexico who has said he inherited the shield from his mother.

The U.S. attorney's office in New Mexico has sought to execute a warrant granted by U.S. courts for the return of the shield.

Its return to New Mexico would require cooperation from the auction house in Paris. Eve did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment on Thursday.

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