Congressional law could end trade, collection, preservation, museum holdings of Native American and Hawaiian art by U.S. Museums, Citizens

Proposal Could Devastate Multi-Billion Art Economy of Southwestern U.S., Other States

Washington D.C.—A proposal to protect Native American and Hawaiian art would actually have the opposite effect, discouraging the sale and public display of vital cultural heritage and artworks that has made America one of the leading democratic societies to preserve, protect, display and trade indigenous art.

U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M) reintroduced Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act, S.B. 1400.  He claims the bill would prohibit exporting of sacred Native American items and increase penalties for stealing and illegally trafficking tribal cultural patrimony, but leading art experts and collectors say the proposal would do more harm than good.

“Sen. Heinrich’s legislation makes it U.S. government policy to encourage everyone, including museums, to send back to tribes all Native American artifacts. There’s been an Indian art trade for 140 years, and it’s one of the most popular items to collect in the U.S.,” said Kate Fitz Gibbon, the attorney for ATADA, the leading antique and tribal art dealer and collector association in the United States. “This harms the ability of tribal artisans to sell their works, and discourages museums and collectors from owning and displaying Native American art.”

ATADA called upon Congress to reject the bill as it is written, as Congress did in 2016. ATADA said it will encourage museums, scholars and collectors to contact elected representatives to let them know how devastating this bill could be to both culture, museums and private property ownership.

Fitz Gibbon said one of the main problems with the STOP Act is that it describes what it calls “tangible cultural heritage” as “items that are affiliated with a Native American culture.” 

As the law is written, “tangible cultural heritage” could include rugs and textiles, jewelry, ceramics, arrowheads, baskets and any other item made by a Native American or Hawaiian, she added.

“While the export provisions are better written than in 2016, they are still far too broad. By failing to specifically identify religious or communally-owned tribal items, everything is fair game for seizure by the government,” Fitz Gibbon said.

The STOP Act doesn’t just cover the most important, sacred objects that are needed for religious use by the tribes today, it potentially covers everything made by Native Hawaiians and Native Americans from the dawn of time to today, she said.

ATADA believes the proposed law will impose a giant federal bureaucracy to replace a successful voluntary returns program already established by art dealers and collectors directly with the tribes. ATADA supports putting decision-making in tribal hands and providing funding to tribal heritage officers to keep important ceremonial items within tribal communities. The proposed law, in contrast, would engage the Interior, Justice, Homeland Security and State departments in managing voluntary returns. ATADA says the only federal agencies that should be involved to assist voluntary returns are Interior, as liaison, and the Internal Revenue Service, so gifts to tribes will qualify as charitable donations.

ATADA supports voluntary returns of important objects needed for tribal spiritual activities. The non-profit association established the first voluntary returns program in the U.S. to bring key sacred items back to tribal communities. The process is simple: gather items known to be most sacred from legally acquired collections, ask collectors and dealers to donate them, and give them back directly to the tribes. “Our working relationship has been very positive,” says Bob Gallegos of ATADA, who set up the returns program. “Tribal representatives have helped us to bring important objects back to tribal communities, and let us know when items are not needed.”

But the proposed law makes it U.S. federal government policy to encourage the return of ALL Indian art and artifacts to tribes.

“What will happen to the Native American ceramics bought by a foreign tourist at Indian market in Santa Fe?” Fitz Gibbon asked. “Almost all of these will not have any ceremonial character, but the tribes could claim that even a new ceramic can be “sacred” if it has a certain design – and the secrecy that surrounds religious activities means the tribes cannot say what these designs are. This creates a disturbing possibility that anything could be seized by the government under this proposal, placing the burden on the owner to show that an item was legal.”

The ATADA representative noted that it is crucial that legislation affecting the Native American art trade does not harm regional businesses in the Southwest and the American Indian and Tribal art fairs that draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to New Mexico each year.

The bill could have a devastating impact on the Southwest’s tourism industry, employment, tax revenue and overall regional economic health. Even a narrow definition of arts and cultural industries accounts for $1.37 billion in annual wages and salaries in New Mexico alone, as much as the state’s mining industry, and more than the total paid by hotels and restaurants.

The 2014 UNM Bureau of Business and Economic Research report, Building on the Past, Facing the Future: Renewing the Creative Economy of New Mexico, stated that employment in cultural tourism, art and cultural education equaled nearly one in ten jobs (9.8%) in the state – 76,780 persons.

While the 2017 bill is a step forward in dropping some harmful provisions, the policy of supporting returns of all objects is disastrous. ATADA will continue to work to improve the STOP Act by focusing solely on its limited, stated intent.

To learn more contact ATADA at A copy of the ill-conceived Senate Bill is available here.