ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Tribal and federal officials celebrated the return Wednesday of dozens of cultural items to Acoma Pueblo’s nearly 1,000-year-old village in New Mexico after the tribe spent years pressing for the repatriations of ceremonial items from galleries, auction houses and private collections worldwide.
Acoma Pueblo tribal Gov. Kurt Riley called the return of the items a “great joy and relief,” while noting in a statement that the pueblo has yet to recover a shield that features the face of a Kachina, or ancestral spirit, from a Paris auction house.
That shield remains at the EVE auction house more than two years after an international uproar prompted an attempt by U.S. to intervene. They issued a warrant for its return, and appealed to French officials to help halt bidding on the item that Riley says was illegally removed from the tribe’s village west of Albuquerque.
Situated atop a sandstone mesa, the traditional village is called Sky City, and its multi-story adobe complexes and homes overlook an expanse of desert where rock monoliths, rolling hills and mountains rise in different directions. Nearly 5,000 people Acoma Pueblo people call the area home, according to the tribe, and many continue to ask about the status of the shield in Paris and when it might return to the Pueblo.
But for now, Riley and others are taking some satisfaction in the fact that another similar shield that had been listed for sale at a gallery in Montana is among more than two dozen items that federal authorities helped repatriate this week to the pueblo, he said.
U.S. Attorney John Anderson said the Montana gallery is located in Bozeman. He said the business’ owner voluntarily gave it to a U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs agent after being approached about it. He did not name the gallery.
“It’s home and it’s in a safe place,” Riley said in an interview. “That’s what’s most important.”
For several years, Acoma Pueblo and its quest for the shield in Paris have been at the center of a wave of efforts to place more overall focus on the repatriations of cultural and sacred pieces to tribes — with federal legislation, hearings and reports focused on the issue emerging in the last two years.
A Government Accountability Office report this year found that the vast majority of items to land in what federal officials identified as primary markets for Native American cultural items came from the U.S. Southwest. Aaron Sims, an attorney for Acoma Pueblo, said the finding confirmed Acoma Pueblo leaders’ long-held theory that tribes in the region have been disproportionately affected by the trafficking of ceremonial objects.
Other items recently returned to Acoma Pueblo include what the governor described as five more large pieces, in addition to the shield returned from Montana, and an array of more than two dozen smaller items.
Leaders of the Acoma Pueblo and other Southwest tribes often have been hesitant to discuss or publicly show their communities’ sacred items as a way to protect their cultural identity, traditions and beliefs.
Riley did not describe the additional items being returned to the pueblo, and they were not expected to be shown during a ceremony attended by federal officials Wednesday.
In 2016, he and other Acoma Pueblo leaders made an exception in their decision to describe the shield in Paris during emotional public appeals for its return. According to the pueblo, the colorful shield stitched together with leather straps is an irreplaceable ceremonial object that holds a place in the cycle of the pueblo’s ceremonies.
The tribe and federal officials have said the shield was likely stolen from a home on the mesa in the 1970s.
“There is no way a person could remove or sell the shield in compliance of tribal law,” said Sims.
French dealers at EVE have maintained that they acquired the shield legally under French and U.S. laws but removed it from a planned 2016 auction.
For numerous collectors of Native American artifacts, there has been dispute over whether the shield was taken in violation of a 1990 federal law that carries penalties for trafficking human remains, burial objects or items of exceptional cultural or historical importance for a tribe. The bill became law amid concerns from tribes about looting and aggressive archaeological expeditions on tribal lands.
More recent legislation, commonly referred to as the STOP Act, has been proposed to seek stiffer penalties for stealing and exporting tribal ceremonial items to foreign markets. Proposed in 2016 by U.S Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, the legislation also would set an amnesty period for people to voluntarily return cultural items collected in violation of existing laws.
It has not been approved by the Senate.