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On Feb. 17, the New Mex­ico Se­nate unan­i­mously ap­proved a me­mo­rial to seek en­hanced pro­tec­tion of Na­tive cul­tural prop­er­ties and stricter en­force­ment of vi­o­la­tors. The state House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives unan­i­mously OK’d House Joint Me­mo­rial 1 ear­lier in Fe­bru­ary.

HJM 1 or­ders that the state at­tor­ney gen­eral and the Depart­ment of Cul­tural Affairs (DCA) work with tribal and com­mu­nity lead­ers to re­view the New Mex­ico Cul­tural Prop­er­ties Act and ap­pli­ca­ble fed­eral laws “to make rec­om­men­da­tions for en­hanced pro­tec­tion of cul­tural items, take steps to pre­vent the theft, wrong­ful sale, or alien­ation of cul­tural items and cul­tural prop­er­ties, and dis­cour­age such acts by way of the cre­ation and en­force­ment of treaties, laws, and joint pow­ers agree­ments.”

“To­day the New Mex­ico leg­is­la­ture took a very im­por­tant step in ad­dress­ing a se­ri­ous and per­va­sive prob­lem — the il­le­gal theft and sale of cul­tural ob­jects, sa­cred to the tribes,” Pue­blo of Acoma tribal sec­re­tary Jonathan Sims said in a Feb. 18 state­ment. Acoma took the ini­tia­tive on the mea­sure, which was co-spon­sored by In­dian Affairs Com­mit­tee mem­bers Sen. Car­los Cis­neros (D) of Questa and Rep. Jim Smith (R) of San­dia Park. At is­sue, Sims said, are items re­moved from tribal lands and sold to col­lec­tors, in­clud­ing on eBay and at Euro­pean auc­tion houses.

Ann Rogers, the tribe’ s at­tor­ney, told the Se­nate that New Mex­ico laws should be bol­stered on the model of the fed­eral Na­tive Amer­i­can Graves Pro­tec­tion and Repa­tri­a­tion Act (NAGPRA).

The me­mo­rial’s 10 clauses say that “the unau­tho­rized ap­pro­pri­a­tion of cul­tural prop­erty is a vi­o­la­tion of state law” and that“the theft, wrong­ful sale, or alien­ation of cul­tural prop­erty is dam­ag­ing to all cul­tures and com­mu­ni­ties in New Mex­ico.”

The mea­sure re­calls that NAGPRA deals with t he “treat­ment, repa­tri­a­tion, and dis­po­si­tion of Na­tive Amer­i­can hu­man re­mains, fu­ner­ary ob­jects, sa­cred ob­jects, and ob­jects of cul­tural pat­ri­mony” — the lat­ter are those items hav­ing “on­go­ing his­tor­i­cal, tra­di­tional, or cul­tural im­por­tance cen­tral to the Na­tive Amer­i­can group or cul­ture it­self, rather than prop­erty owned by an in­di­vid­ual Na­tive Amer­i­can, and which, there­fore, can­not be alien­ated, ap­pro­pri­ated, or con­veyed by any in­di­vid­ual.”

HJM I also em­pha­sizes that the theft, wrong­ful sale, or alien­ation of such ob­jects “is not only il­le­gal, it is also deeply of­fen­sive be­cause it strikes at the heart of what it means to be tribal peo­ple and at the core of cul­tural be­lief sys­tems in ways that im­pact what is sig­nif­i­cant and sa­cred.”

A fis­cal im­pact re­port gen­er­ated in con­junc­tion with the me­mo­rial de­ter­mined that no such im­pacts would ap­ply with pas­sage of the mea­sure. The re­port did men­tion a query from DCA re­gard­ing the pos­si­ble in­clu­sion of“the is­sue of mis rep­re­sen­ta­tion of con­tem­po­rary non-Na­tive Amer­i­can-made prod­ucts as Na­tive Amer­i­can-made,” since the Cul­tural Prop­er­ties Act ap­plies only to ob­jects of cul­tural pat­ri­mony, buri­als, pub­lic lands, and pub­lic agen­cies. — Paul Wei­de­man

A Na­tive Amer­i­can pro­tester in Paris holds a sign read­ing “We are not for sale” at a De­cem­ber 2014 auc­tion of Navajo tribal masks; AP photo Fran­cois Mori

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