ALBUQUERQUE, NM – A ceremonial Native American shield has been welcomed back to New Mexico by tribal leaders, in the culmination of a yearslong international campaign to reclaim the sacred object that held a place in a cycle of ceremonies until it vanished from a mesa-top indigenous village in the 1970s.
Nearly four years ago, the shield surfaced as an auction item in Paris, prompting tribal leaders to begin making public appeals for it to be pulled from bidding and returned to them.
U.S. and Acoma Pueblo officials announced Monday that an FBI agent delivered the shield from Paris last week following a multiagency effort that involved U.S. senators, diplomats and prosecutors.
A federal judge on Monday dismissed a civil forfeiture case that removes the final hurdle for the shield to be formally returned to Acoma Pueblo.
“Our prayers have been answered,” said Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo, appearing alongside federal law enforcement officials. “I am so grateful that we can do this — that our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren and those not yet born will have the opportunity to continue this way of life and that they will do it with the protection of our sacred shield.”
The shield — a colorful, circular piece featuring the face of a Kachina, or ancestral spirit, and dangling feathers — is among hundreds of Native American items, many of them considered sacred by tribes, to be sent to Paris auction houses by collectors over the years. U.S. laws prohibit the trafficking of certain tribal items domestically, but it doesn’t explicitly ban dealers from exporting them.
A U.S. Government Accountability Office report last year found that sales of Native American cultural items began to decline following a 2016 outcry over plans to sell the Acoma Pueblo shield and other items. About 1,400 Native American cultural items were listed for sale between 2012 and 2017, with about half selling for nearly $7 million.
The auction houses long stood their ground against pressure to halt bidding on Kachinas, mask-like pieces and Plains war shirts, saying that doing so could have broad repercussions for the art market in general.
In the years since the Acoma Pueblo shield was pulled from auction, the EVE auction house has not responded to interview requests from The Associated Press.
Federal officials said the shield was stored at the auction house since 2016. An FBI agent retrieved it about a week ago.
“This shield obviously is a high priority item for us and for Acoma, but it's by no means unique,” said U.S. Attorney John Anderson. “It's not the only item out there of cultural patrimony that is subject to purchase and sale that shouldn't be.”
U.S. law enforcement is still quite active in that area, Anderson said.
The uproar over auction plans for the shield in 2016 was followed that year by legislation to prevent more items that tribes hold sacred from being sent overseas.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, earlier this year re-introduced legislation to ban collectors and vendors from exporting Native American ceremonial items to foreign markets. He and others blamed legal loopholes for stifling the return of the shield.
“No matter where they are, all sacred and culturally significant items must be returned to their rightful home,” Heinrich said Monday in a Twitter post, praising the arrival of the Acoma shield from France.
His legislation would increase prison time from five years to 10 years for violating the law more than once. The bill also would establish a framework for collectors to return protected items to tribes and avoid facing penalties.
For generations, the shield, considered the property of the entire tribe, remained safely in a home atop a 367-foot, sandstone mesa, tribal leaders say. It was placed in the care of different community members over the years but did not belong to any single person, making its removal from the pueblo illegal under tribal law, according to Acoma leaders.
An affidavit from Acoma Pueblo obtained by the AP in 2016 said the shield disappeared after a break-in.
In a statement Monday, Acoma Pueblo officials said the shield had been in the possession of a family for decades that did not know of its ceremonial significance.
Jerold Collings, who court records show sent the shield to Paris for auction, said previously he had inherited it, not knowing it may have been stolen. The tribe’s leaders credited Collings for agreeing to a court settlement in July that called for EVE auction house to release the shield to the U.S. Embassy in Paris.
That agreement set in motion the process for the shield to return to Acoma Pueblo, where Vallo, the governor, said it will eventually be held at a museum before it’s returned to the Sky City village and re-introduced into ceremonies.
“There’s no place for illegal acquisitions and sale of these items,” he said. “We hope future laws ensure these items are protected and returned.”
The tribe’s reservation west of Albuquerque is bordered by mountains and El Malpais National Monument, where historians say Puebloan ancestors built homes amid cliffs and ancient lava fields as early as 950 A.D.
The traditional village of Sky City, situated on the mesa, dates to 1150. Its multistory adobe complexes and homes overlook an expanse of desert marked by rock monoliths.