Bipartisan, Bicameral STOP Act To Safeguard Tribal Items Introduced

STOP Act would prohibit exporting sacred Native items and increase penalties for illegally trafficking Native cultural objects

Today, U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich (D-N.M) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) reintroduced the bipartisan Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act, a bill to prohibit the exporting of sacred Native American items and increase penalties for stealing and illegally trafficking tribal cultural patrimony. The House companion was introduced by Assistant House Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and U.S. Representatives Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), Don Young (R-Alaska), and Tom Cole (R-Okla.).

“I am proud to work with tribes in New Mexico and across Indian Country to reintroduce this legislation to safeguard sacred Native American items,” said Heinrich. “The STOP Act has garnered broad, bipartisan support and I’m confident we can pass it into law. In New Mexico, we all recognize the incredible beauty of American Indian art--from the 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 to this day by Native artists. But there is a clear difference between supporting American Indian art 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 repatriate stolen culturally significant items to their rightful owners.”

“By protecting and repatriating tribal cultural heritage, we are also actively preserving the cultural identity and history of our Native populations. This process of returning stolen items back to their rightful owners in our Native communities aids in the process of healing from cultural oppression. The STOP Act simply works to right a wrong,” said Murkowski. “Working to increase penalties for illegally trafficking cultural items and artifacts, providing an export certification system that protects these relics, and improving coordination between federal agencies working to protect and repatriate tribal artifacts, we can ensure that these items of such cultural importance remain with or are returned to their rightful owners.”

“The theft of Tribal heritage items has been a reprehensible injustice for far too long,” said Luján. “I’m proud to work with Sen. Martin Heinrich to move forward legislation to prohibit the exploitation of sacred Native items by outlawing their exportation and increasing penalties for those who traffic in cultural patrimony. We have a responsibility to lend our voices to Native communities seeking to safeguard their heritage, sovereignty, and knowledge, and the introduction of this legislation is an important step. I am hopeful that the immense bipartisan and bicameral support will build momentum for this critical piece of legislation and that honoring our trust responsibility to Tribes will continue to be a priority for this Congress.”

“Since its passage, the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act has been an important tool for bringing home Native American cultural items, including art, ceremonial goods and sacred property, but we need to do more to ensure our Indigenous communities’ important cultural belongings are preserved and protected,” said Young. “Gaps in existing law have made it difficult to prohibit the export of Native American cultural items, leading to further loss of these precious materials. As the Representative of many Alaska Native communities, I am proud to support the STOP Act to help precious cultural property return to the communities they belong to, and I am grateful for Congressman Ben Ray Luján’s leadership on this important issue.”

“No one’s cultural, sacred, and historical items should be stolen and trafficked for profit, but for centuries Native American property has been taken from our communities and sold off to the highest bidder. Our people are not just some long ago culture forced into extinction – we are still here and we still practice our traditional ceremonies and pilgrimages. The STOP Act would ensure that our communities regain the authority to determine how and where our loved ones and property are shared, while ensuring those responsible for taking our sacred property bare the consequences,” said Haaland.

“I am proud to join with my colleagues in the introduction of the STOP Act, which would preserve and safeguard the precious cultural property of Native Americans,” said Cole. “Just as the United States helps protect and return foreign cultural property, it is only right for other countries to respect ownership of the sacred treasures, artifacts and other items belonging to Native Americans. I am encouraged that this legislation would combat trafficking of Native American artifacts and help preserve the priceless history and culture of tribal nations.”

The STOP Act:

  • Increases Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) penalties to aid in deterrence.
  • Explicitly prohibits the export of tribal cultural heritage obtained in violation of NAGRPA, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA), or the Antiquities Act. Creates an export certification system where an exporter seeking to export an item that qualifies as a Native American cultural item, archaeological resource, or object of antiquity under NAGPRA, ARPA, or the Antiquities Act must apply for a certification, and only items legally obtained are eligible for a certification. Certain countries, such as France, restrict import of cultural heritage illegally exported from a country that issues export certificates. The export prohibition paired with the export certification system will help the United States and tribes use those countries’ domestic laws and law enforcement mechanisms to return illegally exported items.
  • Confirms the President’s authority to enter into agreements under a 1970 international treaty in order to request from other countries return of tribal cultural heritage. The United States has already entered into such agreements to protect other countries’ cultural heritage.  
  • Creates a federal framework to support voluntary return of sacred items, including a referral program to allow the Department of the Interior to assist individuals in finding a tribe with a cultural affiliation to tribal cultural heritage they want to return.  
  • Creates a federal working group to ensure coordination between federal agencies whose work involves protecting or facilitating repatriation of tribal cultural heritage.
  • Establishes a tribal working group to aid federal agencies and committees whose work involves protecting or facilitating repatriation of tribal cultural heritage.

Senator Heinrich originally introduced the STOP Act in 2016.  The bill was marked up and passed out of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in 2018

The STOP Act has widespread, bipartisan support and continues to demonstrate growing momentum. The bill has been endorsed by organizations and tribes across Indian Country.

"The Nez-Lizer Administration is very thankful to Senator Heinrich and Assistant Speaker Luján for crafting this bill to protect our cultural heritage and stewardship of our sacred belongings. In 2014, the issue of repatriation was brought to our forefront when the Navajo Nation recovered several ceremonial masks from a Paris auction that were unlawfully taken from our homelands. We were successful in bringing the masks back home, but not without great difficulty. Our administration is certain that if it has happened to the Navajo Nation, then it has happened all across Indian Country. The Navajo Nation strongly supports the STOP Act to help repatriate stolen culturally significant items to the rightful owners,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez. 

“Protecting Alaska Native cultural heritage and supporting repatriation of sacred objects has been a priority for Sealaska Heritage for decades. We appreciate that members of the public value these efforts, and that Congress has seen fit to introduce legislation that will provide the means for this important work to continue. These objects belong to clans and represent the spirits of our ancestors. We know that they want to come back home,” said Rosita Kaaháni Worl, President of Sealaska Heritage Institute.

“Our cultural patrimony is critical to the continuance of our culture, and to our survival. For over a century, the Pueblo of Acoma, as well as many tribes throughout the country, has experienced the illegal removal and trafficking of cultural items where they become lost for generations, absent during our most significant communal ceremonies." said Pueblo of Acoma Governor Brian Vallo. "Acoma can no longer stand idly by and allow our people, our children, and those not yet born to be stripped of the gifts of their cultural inheritance. United States' law must be strengthened. The Pueblo of Acoma fully supports the reintroduction of the STOP Act and urges Congress to act swiftly in its passage. Acoma is grateful to Representative Ben Ray Luján, Senator Martin Heinrich, and the entire New Mexico Congressional Delegation for their continued leadership and unwavering support in addressing this critical issue."

"The All Pueblo Council of Governors reaffirms our strong support for the STOP Act. We stand in recognition that our Pueblo nations have been disproportionately impacted by illegal trafficking of our tribal cultural heritage. We thank our congressional partners for standing with us in calling upon the United States to address international repatriation and take affirmative actions to stop the theft and illegal sale of our tribal cultural heritage both within the country and abroad. We look forward to this legislation supporting the return of these living resources that ensure the traditional well-being of our present generations and those forthcoming,” said All Pueblo Council of Governors Chairman E. Paul Torres.

“The Tlingit & Haida Tribes of Alaska strongly support the STOP Act and its measures to prohibit the export of Tribal sacred objects without proper authority. We have great hope for the Act’s working group intended to enable the voluntary return of sacred objects previously acquired and to help identify and stop the illegal trafficking. Sacred objects connect our spiritual cultural practices to the eternal memory of our ancestors. We are grateful for the bi-partisan Congressional effort answering our pleas for relief by co-sponsoring and supporting the STOP Act.” said Will Micklin, 3rd Vice President Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.

“The continued theft, looting and profiting off of Native American cultural heritage is evidence of the lack of understanding from the public that Tribal Nations and their citizens possess the basic human rights to practice their cultures and religions without such persecution. The history of past federal policy that has outlawed Native American cultural practices, languages and religions set the stage for these types of violations of human rights. The passage of the STOP Act will require looters to prove their legality to such significant and sensitive items before they are trafficked internationally. Though there is still much to do towards protecting Native American cultural heritage, the STOP Act is an necessary step towards fully protecting these sensitive items from being lost abroad,” said the Association on American Indian Affairs.

National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers said, “Despite protections in current law, the illicit trade in Native American tangible cultural heritage continues to pose a grave threat to the cultural survival of Indian tribes. Our sacred and cultural items are illegally taken from our people, threatening the maintenance of our cultures and traditions and depriving us of the legacy we seek to leave our future generations. Meanwhile, a lucrative black market in our tangible cultural heritage thrives, and without explicit export restrictions many of our sacred and cultural items end up abroad. Once abroad, tribes have had very little success in efforts to bring them home.”

“The STOP Act is a critical step - the legal protection of our cultural heritage will help ensure the history of misappropriation of Native objects will not repeat itself,” said Vivian Korthuis, CEO of the Association of Village Council Presidents. “These objects belong to us - they are a part of the legacy we will always share with future generations. I'm glad an awareness is finally beginning to form around this concept.”

The STOP is also supported by Santa Clara Pueblo, Tesuque Pueblo, Zuni Pueblo, Nambé Pueblo, Wyandotte Nation, Native Village of Barrow, Mt. Sanford Tribal Consortium, Duckwater Shoshone Tribe, Susanville Indian Rancheria, Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, Cherokee Nation, United South and Eastern Tribes, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Hopi Tribe, Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes, Sealaska Heritage, the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, Tanana Chiefs Conference, the National Indian Head Start Directors Association, Alaska Federation of Natives, the Native American Rights Fund, and the National Indian Education Association.

The Senate bill was introduced today by Heinrich and Murkowski and is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), and James Lankford (R-Okla.). The House companion was introduced today by Luján, Haaland, Young, and Cole and is cosponsored by U.S. Representatives Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.), Amata Coleman Radewagen (R-American Samoa), and Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.).