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Stolen Artifacts Returned to Native American Tribes

Protecting National Treasures
Stolen artifacts Returned to Native American Tribes


Native American headdress (stock image)In a special ceremony September 25 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, eight Native American tribes reclaimed ceremonial and religious artifacts that had been taken illegally from their reservations and sold in the back room of a well-known Santa Fe art gallery.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and the FBI recovered the objects after a two-year investigation that resulted in the conviction of the gallery owner and another Santa Fe art dealer for illegal trafficking in Native American cultural items.

In what was the single largest “repatriation” of Native American religious objects, hundreds of items, worth more than $400,000 on the black market—and priceless to the tribes—were returned to the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Pueblo of Acoma, Pueblo of Jemez, Pueblo of Laguna, Pueblo of Santo Domingo, Pueblo of Zia, and the Zuni Tribe.

Among the artifacts were “prayer sticks” with protected eagle feathers, which are used in a Holy Way ceremony practiced by the Navajo Nation; a Golden eagle feather headdress; “bull-roarers,” musical instruments that make the sounds of animals and spirits; and stone axes or “chamajillas” (also known as “monster slayer clubs”) that are part of a medicine man’s bundle.

How were the dealers caught? Through the concerted efforts of a Norwegian investigator posing as a wealthy European art collector and an FBI agent posing as an American art dealer.

The gallery owner and his supplier pled guilty in September 2002 to violating the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Migratory Bird Protection Treaty Act, and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. It was a glorious homecoming. When Second Lieutenant Governor George Shendo received the sacred items belonging to the Jemez Pueblo, he said: “It means my children are coming back home. We welcome them with open arms. It’s a great feeling.”