This Is Our Heritage: Feeling the Presence of Sacred Native American Items

By: Ginnie Seger, Video Producer for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

As our team approaches the Acoma Pueblo reservation, the sky and ground fuses into one and that’s when we know we’ve arrived, to Big Sky City, as it’s called. The Acoma have inhabited this area for thousands of years. Their sacred mesa, a massive rock that juts out of the earth, is one of the longest continuously inhabited communities in the United States. As we tour their community, it becomes evident that Acoma Pueblo believe strongly in their traditions. “We have survived this long because we’ve kept our traditions alive,” said Everett Garcia, a tribal member and religious leader.

We are on the Acoma Pueblo reservation because Native American leaders are searching for ways to encourage auction houses to “do what is right in the eyes of humanity” and halt the auctioning of sacred items. Yet these auctions continue, including a couple each and every year in France. As part of the U.S. government’s efforts to assist, a team of us led by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell travelled to reservations near Albuquerque, New Mexico last week.

Over the past few years, the U.S. government has been working with the tribes, both to help them draw attention to these auctions and to encourage tribes to document items that are at risk of theft and trafficking. The U.S. government has taken the stance that in the absence of clear documentation and the consent of the tribes themselves, it is fundamentally wrong to sell these items. In most cases, the sale of these items is illegal in the United States, and we continue to encourage auction houses in other countries to refrain from selling them as well.

Secretary of the Department of Interior Sally Jewell poses for a photo with the members of the Acoma Pueblo tribe. [State Department photo]

As we talk with the Acoma Pueblo leaders, they make the case that their tribe — and their very existence — is being threatened by the sale of their cultural patrimony. To the Acoma Pueblo and other Native American tribes, these items are essential to their religious practices and are seen as having a life of their own. “It’s like losing a family member,” said Governor of the Acoma Pueblo tribe, Kurt Riley. “You know they are out there, but they are not with you, but you can feel their presence.”

After touring the village, we met with Garcia. He smiled widely when he greeted us, but his face became softened and he began to weep when he spoke about the sacred Acoma shield, an item that was recently pulled from an auction in Paris after reports that it may have been stolen in the 1970s. While it was pulled from the auction, authorities are still investigating — and the shield has not yet been returned to the tribe.

“I want this shield back, not only for myself, but for the future of my tribe.” he said. “It hurts to even call these objects, objects. To me they are sacred.”