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Bipartisan members of the Senate reintroduced a bill at our nation’s capitol earlier this summer, hoping that it might deter the trafficking of Native American artifacts that have been obtained illegally.

The Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act was introduced by New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich last summer, but never made it to a vote. Not to be deterred, the sponsor has reintroduced the bill.

“I am proud to work with tribes in New Mexico and across Indian Country to craft this legislation to safeguard sacred Native American items,” Heinrich said.

“We all recognize the incredible beauty of American Indian art, from the remnants of ancient wonders that we can explore and admire in places like Chaco Canyon and the Gila Cliff Dwellings to the traditional and modern art masterpieces created by Native artists to this day. But we can also recognize a clear difference between supporting tribal artists or collecting artifacts ethically and legally as opposed to dealing or exporting items that tribes have identified as essential and sacred pieces of their cultural heritage. We need to take all possible action to stop the latter and help repatriate stolen culturally significant items to their rightful owners.”

The bill would ban the exportation of Native American artifacts which have been illegally obtained, and set penalties for those who violate that ban. It would also double the potential prison term for repeat offenders from five years to ten.

Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) has cosponsored the bill.

“Theft and sale of sacred Native American cultural items are an assault on the cultural identity of Native American tribes, and I am proud to join Senator Heinrich and applaud his leadership with tribes on this important legislation to stop this practice in its tracks,” said Udall.

“Native Americans have been the victims of theft and looting for generations. We have passed laws to stop it, but people are exploiting the loopholes in our current laws to sell these objects as art. They are not pieces of art. Theft not only robs tribes of sacred objects, it robs them of a piece of their spiritual identity. This bill is the strong action we need to put a stop to theft and sale and ensure tribes have a seat at the table in the fight.”

Six other senators have signed their names on the proposed legislation.

Those co-sponsoring the bill included Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).

Tribes across the country have endorsed the bill as well. They voiced their support during a hearing held late last year.

“The Navajo Nation thanks Senator Heinrich for his leadership on this bipartisan bill that will strengthen cultural protection laws for all of Indian Country,” said Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye.

“I am also encouraged that this bill will make it clear that exportation of our sacred and traditional items out of the United States will be illegal. Our cultural and sacred items are an important part of who we are as Navajo and Indian people and it is important that they be protected and returned.”

The bill has been referred to the Committee of Indian Affairs for further consideration.

Written by Tim Wohler

Tim Wohler is a reporter for Hocak Worak, the newspaper of the Ho Chunk Nation.

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