A diplomatic push for the return of Native American ceremonial objects from auction houses in Paris has been hampered by loopholes in U.S. laws that authorities and lawmakers say prohibit the trafficking of the federally protected items domestically but don't explicitly ban dealers from exporting them to foreign markets.
The comments from U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both New Mexico Democrats, came Tuesday before a field hearing in Albuquerque, where tribal leaders and representatives of several federal agencies — including the U.S. State, Interior and Justice departments — testified that a growing international market for ceremonial objects that include masks and shields has made it difficult for tribes to track and repatriate stolen items.
"They are not pieces of art. They are spiritual objects deeply important for tribal identity," Udall said. "Theft not only robs the tribes of a sacred object, it robs them of a piece of their spiritual identity."
French officials have told the Obama administration that they often are unable to intervene in numerous auction house sales of the items at the request of the United States because American laws fall short of making it a crime to send the objects overseas, the senators said.
Both are co-sponsors of legislation that would prohibit dealers from exporting the federally protected tribal items and double the prison time to 10 years for violating a statute that criminalizes stealing or unlawfully removing tribal objects from reservations.