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Proposed law would help tribes reclaim cultural, religious items

By Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media

Tribes across the country would have new opportunities to reclaim lost artifacts under a new Senate bill. The Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony, or STOP Act, would prevent the export of cultural and religious items.

Martin Heinrich is the junior senator from New Mexico who introduced the STOP Act to the Senate.

“It’s time to make sure that items that are deeply religious or deeply connected to individual tribes are respected, are not sold on the auction block,” Heinrich said.

The STOP Act is an extension of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, which was passed in 1990. NAGPRA prohibited the sale of Native American cultural or religious items and ceremonial remains, but it did not prevent the export of these items. That legal loophole created a market for collectors to purchase these items overseas, most notably in Europe.

“I think it just didn’t foresee at the time the fact that once an item covered under NAGPRA leaves the United States, there’s no real way to prosecute it under NAGPRA,” Heinrich said.

Heinrich introduced the STOP Act on Wednesday with Southwest Native American leaders and said that he hopes to reach out to more tribes to gather support and insight for the bill.

“We really want to hear from the entire Native world about how their stories, how they’ve been impacted, and hear from them how we can make this better,” Heinrich said.

Aaron Leggett is the curator of Alaska History and Culture at the Anchorage Museum. He said that the STOP Act would help with Alaska Native cultural re-patriation, but the impact wouldn’t be huge.

“With the exception of maybe some items in Southeast Alaska I don’t think that it would,” Leggett said. “There’s a few cases here and there. There have been pieces that have been sold at auction. I know there were several Yupik masks that were sold for record amounts of money.”

Leggett said in the past, Alaska Native groups have organized the recovery of cultural items themselves.

“Some of the communities have also either privately, quietly went to these auctions and purchased these items or had wealthy benefactors purchase them and essentially repatriate them to the people,” Leggett said. “Or in some cases they’ve even went to the donors before they put them in the auctions and explain to them why these items really shouldn’t be on the open market.”

Leggett said the STOP Act would aid the recovery of lost artifacts, however he said Southwest tribes have suffered the most from these types of cultural losses.

Sen. Heinrich said reception for the bill has been almost unanimously positive, and he has reached out to Alaska delegates specifically to help push the bill through.

“I do a lot of work with Sen. Murkowski; we’re both on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee,” Heinrich said. “So, she was one of the first senators that we sent a discussion draft to, so they are going through that now. And we’re looking forward to finding out if it’s something we can work together on.”

In addition to banning the export of cultural items, the STOP Act increases penalties under NAGPRA from 5 years to 10 years for selling unlawfully obtained cultural items and allows for a two year amnesty period where items can be repatriated to tribes with no legal penalty.