Sen. Martin Heinrich plans to introduce a bill to strengthen penalties for exporting Native American religious and sensitive cultural items

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FARMINGTON — The Navajo Nation has thrown its support behind legislation that would strengthen a federal law that prohibits exporting Native American sacred and traditional items.

On Thursday, nine members of the Naa’bik’íyáti’ Committee approved a bill to support the proposal, which Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., plans to introduce in the coming weeks.

Delegate Jonathan Hale sponsored the tribal bill and said today that it issues the tribe’s formal stance on Heinrich’s bill, the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act.

The act would prohibit the exporting of Native American religious and sensitive cultural items and strengthen penalties under the Native American Graves and Protection and Repatriation Act, according to the senator's office.

Heinrich's bill proposes increasing the penalties under NAGPRA from a maximum of five years in prison to a maximum of 10 years, in addition to prohibiting the exportation of items obtained in violation of NAGPRA, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act or the Antiquities Act.

In addition, it would set a two-year amnesty for individuals who voluntarily return illegally obtained cultural objects to the appropriate tribe.

Another aspect of the bill would direct the Government Accountability Office to conduct a study on the number of cultural objects illegally trafficked across the country and around the world.

In a statement to The Daily Times, Heinrich said the state recognizes the beauty of American Indian art, but consumers need to recognize the difference between supporting tribal artists and ethically and legally collecting artifacts and exporting items that tribes have identified as sacred.

"We need to take all possible action to stop priceless Native American cultural artifacts from being sold to the highest bidder and ensure they are returned to their rightful owners," Heinrich said.

The Navajo Nation, along with the Pueblo of Acoma and other tribes, have been working on further legal protection of cultural items, said Rodney Tahe, political analyst for the Human Rights Commission, a tribal office that works to protect the rights of Navajos.

The commission also worked with the Navajo Nation Historic Preservation Department and the council to develop the tribe's position, Tahe added.

Hale said his bill developed after discussion with members of the Sacred Sites Task Force. He said it stems from the tribe’s efforts in December 2014 to retrieve ceremonial masks from a French auction house.

Both Hale and Tahe applauded the tribe taking a formal stance on the issue.

Another bill Hale is sponsoring proposes amending tribal law to address the removal of cultural property from tribal lands and to enhance criminal penalties, Hale said. That bill remains at the Resources and Development Committee due to a request from the Historic Preservation Department for a work session, he said.

A signed copy of the approved tribal bill will be submitted to the Navajo Nation Washington Office, where it will be distributed to the appropriate parties, Hale said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.

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