The STOP Act: Proposed Legislation to Stop the Export of Native American Cultural Patrimony

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STOP Act Press Conference in Washington D.C., July 6, 2016.

In early July, US Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) introduced the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act. Broadly, the STOP Act aims to strengthen previous Native cultural heritage legislation. Most importantly, the Act prohibits the export of any archaeological or ethnographic object that falls under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA), or the Antiquities Act from the United States. The Act also aims to increase penalties for violations of NAGPRA and requests for the US Government Accountability Office (US GAO), in collaboration with a Native working group, to author a report on illicit American Indian objects trafficking.

The STOP Act was proposed in response to this summer’s high-profile Native arts auction at the EVE Auction House in Paris. The auction house, despite widespread protest in Indian country and an emergency meeting at the National Museum of the American Indian, went ahead with the sale. In particular, the auction house was selling a ceremonial shield from the Pueblo of Acoma and a warrior jacket with hair from human scalps. 314 other Native objects of cultural patrimony were also included in the catalog. Images of these objects will not be shown in this post out of respect for their cultural significance. According to Pueblo of Acoma Governor Kurt Riley, the shield is a “sacred item which no individual can own.” This past week, US District Judge Martha Vasquez approved a warrant that will repatriate the shield to Acoma Pueblo.

Currently, the STOP Act has received widespread bipartisan support, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who is co-sponsoring the Act, along with Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and Sen. Tom Udal (D-NM). In addition to governmental support, the Navajo Nation, the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council, the Jicarilla Apache Nation, the All Pueblo Council of Governors, the United South and Eastern Tribes Sovereignty Protection Fund, and the National Congress of American Indians, among other tribal groups, have all voiced support.

The STOP Act “allows tribes the confidence that their traditions and way of life are surely protected” – LoRenzo Bates, Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council Delegate

Cultural Heritage Legislation in the United States  

In the United States, the governmental management of cultural heritage began with the Antiquities Act of 1906. The Act gave the federal government the ability to deem particular “landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” federal land. In 1979, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) classified the looting of archaeological materials as a federal crime, which protected the integrity of countless archaeological sites. But, ARPA has been loosely enforced, which is a flaw that the STOP Act is looking to remedy.

Most recently, in 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed. NAGPRA requires museums that are federally funded to comply and repatriate artifacts sacred to the tribe from which they were taken, regardless of their anthropological or ethnographic significance to researchers.

Hopefully, the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act will be the next in this series of vitally important laws.

“These are living, breathing objects — they belong in their homeland,” – Jackson Brossy, Executive Director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office

The Native Art Market


STOP Act Press Conference at Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, July 5, 2016

With all eyes on the Middle East, the native art market has been widely neglected by scholars. In the past year alone, at least 24 items from the Pueblo of Acoma were stolen from their tribal lands and sold on the black market. Officials from Hopi, Santa Ana, and Laguna Pueblos have also been involved in repatriation efforts, but have done so quietly, per their traditional cultural conservatism. The neighbors of the Pueblos, the Navajo, have had to pay over $30,000 to repatriate just two objects of cultural patrimony illegally removed from their land. According to Jonathan Hale, a Navajo official, for native communities, “there was an understanding that ceremonial objects belonged to the tribe and not to individuals, but there were no written laws prohibiting removal of sensitive materials, or even inventories of the items, because “nobody ever thought of those situations happening.”

When “these objects are created for spiritual use within our community, a spirit goes into them. These objects are living beings to us, these objects are a part of our family, these objects are a part of who we are as a community.” – Bradley Marshall, Hoopa Valley Tribe


Currently, the bill is most likely under consideration by a congressional committee. If approved, it will be sent to the House of Representatives and to the Senate. If approved by both, it will be given to the President for signing. The Governor of the Pueblo of Acoma, Kurt Riley, hopes that the STOP Act will “begin to close the doors on the sales of these items in Europe”

The trafficking of cultural heritage both at home and abroad can’t be stopped without your help. To join this fight and raise awareness about this attack on culture, consider working with or donating to SAFE.

“The whole world condemns the destruction of Palmyra by ISIS, the National Geographic cover story this month [June] is about tomb raiders, and just as these things are happening worldwide, they are also happening in the United States with regards to the plundering of native cultures”- Kurt Riley, Governor of the Pueblo of Acoma


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Lillia McEnaney

Lillia McEnaney

Content Coordinator & Web Editor at SAFE
Lillia McEnaney is a senior at Hamilton College and is double majoring in Archaeology and Religious Studies. Lillia has worked as an intern for various museums and cultural institutions across the United States, as a teaching and research assistant, and on field projects in Greece and Macedonia. She is interested in North American archaeology and anthropology, the U.S. Southwest, museum anthropology, digital archaeology, and indigenous rights, sovereignty, and representation. In her role at SAFE, Lillia aims to raise awareness about the widespread and unpublicized looting, trafficking, and sale of American Indian cultural patrimony.

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