Unraveling the mystery of a stolen ceremonial shield

How a sacred object from the Pueblo of Acoma turned up at a Paris auction house, and how the tribe fought for its return.

For most of a century, before the shield went missing, it lived in the Pueblo of Acoma in west-central New Mexico. Acoma is one of the state’s 19 pueblo tribes, with fewer than 5,000 members, half of whom live across four communities on the reservation. The oldest portion sits atop a mesa, which is believed to be one of the oldest continually inhabited sites on the continent — since at least 1100 A.D. by Western measures. It is known outside the tribe as Sky City, and it’s an important part of Acoma’s economy, drawing visitors year-round for its commanding appearance. It’s composed of adobe structures that crowd a risen plane, as if a pillar of earth had shot 367 feet into the air and brought the community with it. The shield lived in a family’s three-story home with six other shields, all tended to by a traditional cultural leader. Their caretaker kept them in a cool, dark room on the second floor, on a wooden shelf built into an adobe wall.

 

The shield and its siblings were passed down from father to son. The caretaker prayed with them daily when they were not being used as a symbol of protection in ceremonies or festivals, when other tribal members could be in their presence. But the shields never belonged to him alone. According to Acoma law, they were collectively owned; they could not leave the pueblo, nor could they be sold or destroyed. They were considered living beings rather than works of art. Cultural patrimony, unlike possessions, is an aspect of a tribe’s identity as a people — like Acoma land, language and resources, the shield was one piece of the tribe’s cultural fabric, passed down through generations and contributing to the whole.

One day in the early 1970s, the shield and five others vanished from the caretaker’s home. The details are clouded: One day they were there, the next they were gone. The family reported the loss to the tribal sheriff, but, as was typical at the time, he did not keep a written record of the event. No outside investigation took place; for Acoma, and for many tribes, matters of cultural patrimony are meant to be held within the community rather than be exposed to a world that has so often threatened their existence.

Michelle Lowden/High Country News

When the shields were stolen, the pueblo had already been working for decades to reclaim what had been taken from it. Starting in the 1940s, Acoma litigated and petitioned the United States Indian Claims Commission for millions of acres of territory, reserved for the tribe in colonial land grants but disregarded by the United States. In 1970, Acoma received a financial settlement for its losses, but no actual land. The tribe purchased private property bordering the reservation over the following decades, using its settlement funds to piece together a semblance of what had been. 

In 2016, nearly 50 years after the shield was stolen, agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) brought a photo of it to Acoma. The image revealed the shield under fluorescent studio lights, floating in front of a gray digital background: Round and rawhide, it showed a face in its center, with black, low-scooped horns, like a water buffalo’s, and a red-lipped, jagged smile. The rich colors of the paint — emerald green, with red, blue and yellow radiating from the face’s edges — seemed to have survived the years unfaded, even as they flaked and mottled the surface. Two feathers with rusted tips, like an eagle’s, hung at each side, pierced through the leather and strung by their quills. The photograph had been taken in Paris, France, by an auction house called EVE, where the shield was consigned for sale. The auction catalog gave no information on how it had arrived or the identity of the seller. “Very rare war shield,” EVE’s description read. “Probably Acoma or Jemez, 19th century or older.” The auction house placed its worth at around 7,000 euros, or $7,800.

The agents showed the image to the granddaughter of the caretaker, a woman who grew up in the same house as the shields and was one of the last living people familiar with this one’s disappearance. They asked her if the shield in the photograph resembled any of the ones stolen from her grandfather’s home. Yes, she told them, except for the feathers; she was certain they hadn’t been there originally. The shield had a name, she knew, but she couldn’t remember what it was. Still, she would recognize it anywhere.   

THAT MAY, EVE HELD A SALE of “Amerindian art, pre-Columbian art, Africa and Oceania” — a type of auction the house holds at least once a year. The shield, one of hundreds of items, hung on a crowded panel in a dark showing room. Navajo blankets were suspended from the ceiling, and a smooth, four-legged slit drum from the Democratic Republic of Congo stood on a wide platform near the back. Cases held masks, baskets and shrunken heads; mannequin torsos wore tasseled and beaded jackets; a complete, limp deerskin, a ceremonial object from the Hoopa Valley Tribe in California, was draped over a display table, its eyes and mouth sewn closed with red woodpecker feathers. The shield was listed as Lot 68.

EVE, which opened in 2002, sells items, often antiques, from a range of continents and time periods, but it has gained a reputation for repeatedly selling sensitive objects from Indigenous tribes in the U.S. When American laws began to curtail the sale of cultural patrimony within the country, sellers turned to European auction houses like EVE. Alain Leroy, EVE’s owner, has justified these sales in the past. “The French market views Native art in a different way than the American,” Leroy told Indian Country Today, in 2013. “In Paris, any collector experiencing an aesthetic emotion, and a direct contact with an item, will buy it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Maori or Hopi.” (EVE did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

When American laws began to curtail the sale of cultural patrimony within the country, sellers turned to European auction houses like EVE. 

When the Acoma shield came up for auction in 2016, it was the second time EVE had tried to sell it. The shield had appeared the previous year in the auction house’s catalog at double the price. That time, an Acoma member saw its listing online and notified tribal leaders just days before the bidding began. Acoma knew it had few options, none particularly promising. They could appeal to the auction house directly, but businesses like EVE rarely listen. If they could find out who sent the shield overseas, they could contact them directly, but sellers often exist behind veils of anonymity, making them nearly impossible to track down. Tribes can consider bidding on an item themselves if they have the funds. But all these options operate within the logic of the auction house, beginning and ending with the cultural object for sale. The market remains intact.

Acoma wanted to take legal action, but the French court system denied the first attempt, and EVE went ahead with the sale. But owing to either overzealous pricing or Acoma’s prayers, the shield didn’t get a bid. It remained in the purgatory of EVE’s collection for the next year.

By the time the shield resurfaced in 2016, Acoma’s religious leaders had appointed a new governor. The position is the tribe’s external bureaucratic version of its internal cultural leaders, created by the Spanish crown in 1620 for all pueblo tribes. The term lasts one year, but governors may be reappointed. The man — and it is always a man — spends much of his time flying to and from Washington, D.C. He argues water adjudication cases, develops education and infrastructure projects, and advocates for the preservation of sacred lands, such as Chaco Canyon, that are endangered by nearby oil and gas drilling.

The role begins with a ceremony held on Dec. 29, with the passing of the Canes of Authority. The canes, straight and wooden, capped in silver, were gifted to the tribe by the colonial powers that gradually redefined Acoma life: first the Spanish government, then the Mexican, and finally, in 1863, President Lincoln. In the ceremony, the outgoing governor returns them to the religious leaders, who then present them to the successor, officially beginning his term. The canes are complicated objects, reminders of colonialism yet symbols of sovereignty.

The canes are complicated objects, reminders of colonialism yet symbols of sovereignty.

In 2016, a man named Kurt Riley received the canes and the job. Riley is gentle and relaxed, and he wears his hair in a long braid down the middle of his back. His face easily cracks into a warm grin when he’s off-camera, which is a relatively rare occurrence during a term full of speeches and congressional testimonies. Riley spent most of his career as a pharmacist in Albuquerque, where he grew up. At the beginning, the role of governor, with its constant publicity and travel, felt overwhelming.

His predecessor walked him through his responsibilities, but he emphasized the importance of continuing the fight to retrieve the shield. “This is very, very important,” Riley recalled being told. “Don’t let it be forgotten.”

Kurt Riley, governor of the Acoma Pueblo until the end of 2018, was central to the tribe's effort to return the Acoma shield.
Kalen Goodluck/High Country News

INDIGENOUS CULTURAL PATRIMONY and human remains have been commodified ever since they became evidence of conquest. Especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these items were taken from tribes like violent receipts, after fatal encounters with the American military, through destructive grave-robbing and looting, and during paternalistic visits from researchers. “Many of the early anthropologists imagined themselves to be heroes engaged in dangerous search and rescue missions,” the anthropologist Margaret Bruchac has written, “recovering cultures from extinction, seeking treasures to fill the halls of the great museums.” In reality, these missions drained Indigenous communities of their cultural resources, while U.S. policies did the same. If items did not end up in museums, they landed in federal institutions and university department basements. Others seeped into the private market and traveled through networks of collectors, severed from the communities they helped define.

Federal laws have attempted to protect these items, although gradually and with inconsistent results. The Antiquities Act, passed in 1906, aimed to quell looting on public and tribal lands, but it was too vague to be enforced. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA), passed during the Carter administration, increased penalties. It made it possible to put those who loot from public and tribal lands in jail, but only if the crimes occurred after the law’s passage.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which passed in 1990, marked a shift in how Congress handled repatriation. If a museum or institution receives federal funding, it must return any identifiable items in its collection that could be considered “cultural heritage” — sacred, patrimonial and funerary objects, as well as Indigenous human remains. The law also makes trafficking items taken after 1990 a criminal offense, and it offers tribes a platform from which to reclaim a vast array of items scattered across the U.S.

 If a museum or institution receives federal funding, it must return any identifiable items in its collection that could be considered “cultural heritage” — sacred, patrimonial and funerary objects, as well as Indigenous human remains. 

But no U.S. law prevents these items from being exported. The Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a United Nations resolution passed in 2007, affirms Indigenous communities’ right to protect and use their ceremonial objects, and requires that countries must resolve situations when objects are “taken without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.” But it has never been successfully used to repatriate any items to a U.S. tribe. According to the Government Accountability Office, around 1,400 sacred, patrimonial or funerary objects from tribal nations in the U.S., the majority from the American Southwest, were knowingly put up for sale in Paris auctions alone between 2012 and 2017. Half of them were bid on and sold for a total of $7 million.

The sales couldn’t have reached these heights without the internet. Just a few years after a company named AuctionWeb sold a single broken laser pointer for $14 in 1995, the site evolved into eBay and amassed a valuation of billions. Anonymous, powerful online bidding began to redefine older auction houses, including the way Indigenous cultural property changed hands.

In 2006, an attorney named Shannon Keller O’Loughlin (Choctaw) worked as counsel to multiple tribal governments. Some of her clients began to notice their cultural property collecting bids on eBay. What were they supposed to do, they asked her, when the seller could hide behind an account name? “Trying to deal with the quagmire of eBay is really difficult,” O’Loughlin told me. “It’s hard to get to an actual person.” O’Loughlin would contact the site, and sometimes an item was taken down, but the seller “will usually put it back up, and then you get it taken down again.” And so on.

When the fine art auction industry caught on to eBay’s techniques, more sensitive items — such as sacred beaded wampum belts from Eastern Woodlands tribes, once nearly sold by Sotheby’s in 2009 for $30,000 — began surfacing. “That’s where we really started seeing cultural items (for sale) that we had never seen before,” O’Loughlin said.

In 2017, O’Loughlin became the executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs. There, she and her colleagues act as a scouting team, closely monitoring auction houses worldwide and posting alerts when sales might include sensitive items. Few tribes, she told me, have the resources to consistently reclaim items; the hope might be to halt a single sale, perhaps without media attention. “Their only goal is bringing items back and returning them to the journey they were on,” O’Loughlin said.

Tribes like Acoma that are able to prioritize cultural resource protection sometimes assign their own employees to scour the web. “It has allowed us to take a peek and see what people have, and to do something about it,” Aaron Sims, an Acoma member and a general counsel attorney for the tribe, told me. Acoma developed a methodology, taking suspect listings from the internet and consulting with religious leadership to determine if the items could belong to the tribe. But as the web brings transparency to these exchanges, auction houses are adapting. Sims has noticed some houses holding sales with vaguer names than they used to — calling items “ethnographic” rather than American Indian — in what he suspects is an attempt to throw off people like him. Even more illicit deals recede further into privacy, especially those involving ancestral remains. “From what we’ve been told from law enforcement, in terms of those significant items, they go black,” O’Loughlin said. “They’re being sold hand-to-hand, or they may be sold on the deep web.”

If not the deep web, Paris. Even when scanning auction sites, tribal officials have few options once an item surfaces outside the U.S. “We only see a sliver of cases,” said David Downes, a Department of the Interior official who works on international repatriation issues with other agencies. “Most of the time, museums are respectful of the values that lead the tribe to make the claim or the request. I don’t think that’s as obvious in what we’ve seen in the auction houses.”

“The issue of cultural repatriation is a big one in France, but it is not one that is associated with Indigenous communities (in the United States),” Philip Breeden, a former official at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, told me. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, has made public commitments to repatriate items looted from African tribes by the French. But there isn’t a clear structure for the country’s courts to recognize North American Indigenous nations’ sovereignty. The U.S. has done little to fight for tribes’ international recognition; when a U.N. group signed an agreement on preventing trafficking of cultural property, broadly construed, the U.S. never adopted the export provisions. When it came to trafficked items, “the U.S. was traditionally a destination country, not a source country,” Breeden, an American, said. Americans, the thinking went, were more often the ones buying looted cultural items from other countries — not losing them. “We were the bad guys,” Breeden said. “So, now, the shoe is on the other foot.”

FOLLOWING THE ANNOUNCEMENT of EVE’s second sale, Riley and Acoma’s lawyers had just weeks to attempt rescuing the shield. Since their appeals to EVE had been ignored, they knew that their best option was to demand responses from federal officials whose voices might be heard in France. Riley sent letters to then-Secretary of State John Kerry, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and dozens of state governors and Congress members. He described how France had rejected Acoma’s attempts to rescue the shield the year before. “Now, we are faced with the same crisis,” he wrote. “Our work, and the laws of the United States are continually being undermined by the action of private auctioneers overseas who portray their establishments as safe havens from the laws of the United States.” He asked the officials for help. Many did respond with their support, but there was little to do — EVE had broken no French laws. From EVE itself, Acoma heard nothing other than an invitation to place its own bid.

Riley flew to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., just days before the auction, for a press conference with leaders from the Hoopa Valley Tribe and the Navajo Nation, who also had items in the sale. The Interior Department and the State Department had helped organize the event, which would be streamed online. Riley was still getting used to public speaking as governor, and he was nervous the entire plane ride. At the museum, a small crowd of journalists sat in front of a podium in the museum’s round lobby. Riley rose to speak, wearing a turquoise and coral necklace and gripping a copy of his speech as he walked to the microphone. One of Acoma’s traditional leaders stood a few steps behind the podium as Riley talked, his hands grasped in front of him, a thumb moving back and forth nervously. Riley called on EVE and the French government to stop the shield’s sale, and he spoke about the domestic issues that started long before France; Acoma was aware of 24 items of its cultural patrimony in the U.S. market in the past year alone. There had to be federal support and legal action to stop the patterns, he said. Riley ended by speaking in Keres, the Acoma language. His voice began to break. He went off script, paused, and began to cry. “For a person in my position, to express my emotion this way,” he said, looking out, “maybe in some eyes, it’s not a role model for males. But this is how much it hurts my people.”

“For a person in my position, to express my emotion this way, maybe in some eyes, it’s not a role model for males. But this is how much it hurts my people.”

A week later, on May 30, patrons in Paris filed into the auction house, rode up a wide escalator, and sat in the bidding room. A small throng of protesters stood on the sidewalk outside, holding banners that said, in French, “cultural genocide” and “sacred not for sale.” Riley was awake on the reservation, where he watched a livestream of the event. Employees in white gloves handled each object as it went up for bids, and the patrons, mostly men and nearly all white, made their offers. Wooden figurines went for thousands of euros, a mummified foot for nearly 800. A Hopi mask crowned with crow feathers sold for over 43,000 euros. Lot 67 came up: a leather shield of richly tanned bison hide, crimson fabric draped around its circumference, with no tribe named. When the Acoma shield should have appeared, though, nothing came across the screen. The auctioneer said that it had been withdrawn. He moved on to a pre-pueblo Anasazi stone sculpture.

“We were so happy,” Riley recalled. “But, we said, ‘Now what?’ ” A cynicism, developed from seeing countless other items disappear in the past, set in: Perhaps the shield had been bought privately, before the auction began, or the seller had changed their mind and kept it. It could already be packed in the back of a car, or stuffed in a box to ship to a collector in another country.

In fact, EVE had quietly removed the shield from sale. The public outcry seemed to have reached the auction house, but only slightly; it sold off other tribes’ sacred items, including the Hoopa Valley deer. While the shield hadn’t exchanged hands, more than 5,000 miles of land and sea still separated it from its home. It would be years before it moved again.

Brian Vallo, an expert in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, worked behind the scenes to bring back the Acoma shield before he succeeded Kurt Riley as tribal governor.
Kalen Goodluck/High Country News

ON AN AFTERNOON IN 1995, an Acoma member named Brian Vallo sat in the Albuquerque airport, waiting for a plane. Acoma’s first repatriation under NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which had been passed five years prior, was arriving in New Mexico. He was there to pick up the items, which were the human remains of Acoma ancestors. The moment brought up the difficult, uncertain process of deciding how to welcome them home and where to bury them. Much of the time, these decisions are painful, even if the return is a good thing. Where should tribes rebury their dead, if the lands on which the deceased lived no longer belong to their descendants? What ceremonies should a tribe use to welcome back a sacred object if there is no tradition for such a circumstance? Chip Colwell, a writer and museum repatriation expert, has written that “repatriation is not an end point so much as a process. … Each case is a new struggle to meaningfully come to terms with history.”   

“I remember the feeling of those first Acoma ancestors coming back,” Vallo told me. “It was a very overwhelming, but also bittersweet moment, of realizing that it takes an effort of many to achieve these types of victories — if you want to call them that.”

Vallo is tall, with Clark Kent hair and a low, full voice that he uses carefully. He’s stylish — rarely without a pair of sleek glasses — and, at 54, looks decades younger than he is. (“Sneaky old,” as one of the Acoma attorneys put it.) As a speaker, he is modest, but he can hold a listener’s attention for hours. At the time of EVE’s auction, Vallo was the director of the Indian Arts Research Center in Santa Fe, but he was often behind the scenes of Acoma projects. He grew up in the pueblo, and most of his family had served in government positions, as had he; his father was governor before Riley, during the shield’s first attempted auction. Vallo’s savvy in and out of the art world has made him skilled in repatriation matters. He is used to mediating between people who see Indigenous patrimony as art, and those who know it as their culture.

“I remember the feeling of those first Acoma ancestors coming back. It was a very overwhelming, but also bittersweet moment, of realizing that it takes an effort of many to achieve these types of victories — if you want to call them that.”

After temporarily dropping out of college when called upon to serve as tribal secretary — the youngest person to do so for Acoma — Vallo became an early NAGPRA expert in New Mexico, assisting pueblo tribes around the state with the law’s complex processes. NAGPRA was, in some ways, radical in its ability to actively push federal institutions to repatriate. Decades of work from Indigenous activism leading to its passage, in 1990, brought public attention to repatriation, especially the staggering collections of human skeletons housed at universities and museums.

“Many institutions, including the federal government’s own Smithsonian, did not have good records,” Vallo said of NAGPRA’s early years. “We were seeing quickly that institutions didn’t know what they had.” When the law passed, it was estimated that there were 100,000 to 200,000 Indigenous human remains in museums and federal agencies, along with 10 million to 15 million cultural items. In 2018, the National Park Service reported that it had returned fewer than half of the human remains in its custody and around 2 million of the objects.

“I always hoped that NAGPRA would set the course for the ways in which federal agencies — and I would even go as far as to say Congress and the office of the president — interact with tribal groups,” Vallo told me. But even with its successes, the legislation’s flaws are similar to issues with which tribal leaders are familiar. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, until recently, had slashed budgets for cultural protection work. And, even if proper collaboration is possible, tribal officials face difficult decisions: Are they willing to put their community’s private culture on public display in order to get the items back?

IN THE FLURRY AFTER THE AUCTION, federal agencies tried to help Acoma by learning more about the item in question. The State Department wanted Acoma leaders to describe the shield and its uses. This was a distressing request: One of the main reasons Acoma wanted to get the shield back was to regain its intended privacy within the pueblo, to stop having to describe it to outsiders. During early interviews as governor, Riley sometimes refrained from even calling it a shield, opting for “item” instead. “We said, ‘No, we can’t do that,’ ” Riley told me. “They were just at a loss, like, ‘How do you expect us to help you?’ ” Riley tried to explain that, to Acoma, the shield was a spiritual being, and there were boundaries, set by religious leaders, about what could be shared outside the tribe.

Riley and the Acoma leadership recognized that they couldn’t move forward without surrendering some control to the federal legal system; they knew, too, that the shield had the potential to amplify the repatriation struggles of many other tribes in the media. After consulting with cultural leaders, they decided to use EVE’s photo of the shield — the one with the gray background — in press materials, and to allow FBI and BIA agents to interview the granddaughter of the shield’s caretaker. They used her memories to write an affidavit, which was attached to legal documents sent to France.

“We knew that it was going to take this level of effort, of information, and really, from the pueblo’s perspective, this level of sacrifice — exposing itself in a way that it otherwise really wouldn’t

“We knew that it was going to take this level of effort, of information, and really, from the pueblo’s perspective, this level of sacrifice — exposing itself in a way that it otherwise really wouldn’t,” Sims, one of Acoma’s general counsel attorneys, told me.

The etymologies of “repatriation” and “return” suggest a kind of backward motion, an attendance to the past. The idea of the shield being an “artifact” or “very old,” as it and other objects are so often described in the market, implies the same more crudely. But Riley and Vallo have always been clear that, to their tribe, the shield is a matter of the present; bringing it home is not simply about closing the gaps of history, but equipping the tribe with what it needs to sustain itself. It was not a separate fight from securing water rights, language preservation, land. The shield that might return would not be the same one that left; it had experienced many difficult years away from its home, and it would play a different role in ceremonies considering that path. But the tribe had changed, too. It had lived through those same years.

The oldest part of the Acoma Pueblo, known as Sky City, sits atop a mesa and is thought to be one of the oldest inhabited communities in North America.
Christian Heeb

THE U.S. GOVERNMENT KNEW OF NO CLEAR PATH to retrieve the shield. “This was the first time that the U.S. was going to ask something from a foreign country,” Riley told me, “and they didn’t know how to do that.” After meetings with Acoma leaders, the U.S. attorney’s office in New Mexico placed a warrant for the shield’s “arrest.” This allowed France to essentially freeze it in place; the shield couldn’t be moved, which was certainly a step, but it was still stuck at EVE.

The tribe asked the auction house for the identity of the seller, but it refused to disclose the name. So Acoma focused on legislative actions. In the summer of 2016, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., introduced the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony, or STOP, Act. It is a bill Acoma enthusiastically supports. It has not yet been passed, but if it is, STOP will help prevent items like the shield from ever crossing the border. Along with increasing domestic NAGPRA penalties, it would prohibit the export of cultural property and create a certification process, which would involve tribal review. It would also create a voluntary return program, so that people can give up items that might violate existing laws without fear of being penalized.

“If the shield never comes back, it has still done its job,” Riley told me. “It brought to light these actions, this awareness, this legislation. It’s a shield. It’s a protector.”

Riley and Vallo began attending different events in Santa Fe to discuss the bill with the Authentic Tribal Art Dealers Association, or ATADA, an organization with whom Acoma has an “arm’s-length relationship,” as Sims put it. The group connects collectors and dealers, many of whom buy and sell at large trade shows in the Southwest, like the Santa Fe Indian Market. It also works to bring ethical practices to an often-criticized industry; the group bans the sale of sacred and patrimonial items among its members and offers authentication certificates, and it has its own program to facilitate voluntary returns of sensitive items that do make their way into the market.

“If the shield never comes back, it has still done its job. It brought to light these actions, this awareness, this legislation. It’s a shield. It’s a protector.”

But the group, which is largely white, has also criticized the STOP Act since it was first introduced. ATADA’s leaders say that they support the bill’s concept, but not the bill; they believe that it is vague, and that it would subject all tribal art to a lengthy, prohibitive review process, which would all but kill the market on which they depend. “Can you imagine what the effect will be the first time a tourist has an item seized, not because there is anything wrong with it, but only because it has not been subjected to this tribal review?” Kim Martindale, the ATADA president, said in a 2019 statement. “Once the word gets around at home, that’ll be the last Italian or German tourist that will come to Santa Fe, and that will really hurt the tribal artisans that rely on the tourist market for most of their annual income.”

Riley, Vallo and Acoma’s lawyers all told me that the vast majority of what flows through tribal art dealer markets is fine to sell — and that work by living artists who are tribal members should be encouraged in the industry. Riley is friendly with a few shop owners in Albuquerque’s Old Town, a walkable, touristy section of the city where tribal art is often sold. He likes to wander through their shops, and if he happens to see anything questionable, he’ll let them know. But to catch sacred or patrimonial items more systematically, tribal consultation has to be better integrated into the industry. In Sims’ view, this wouldn’t be a radical adjustment. “If you have a question, if you’re not sure if it’s an item of cultural patrimony, just call the pueblo,” he said. But it would shift the structures of control. “That’s not how the market has run for the last 50 years.”

“What makes the ATADA and other older dealers so possessive and rigid is the fact that the market is going away,” O’Loughlin, from the Association on American Indian Affairs, said. She sees many collectors as possessing a colonial, frontiersman-like connection to their collections, which strengthens as the industry withers.

In 2018, Vallo was appointed governor, receiving the canes from Riley. Vallo resigned from his job in Santa Fe to take on the demanding role. But while he was still there, he organized an event over two days with Riley, other pueblo leaders and ATADA to discuss the STOP Act in Santa Fe. Vallo warned his boss that the event might be risky — the School for Advanced Research, the larger organization where Vallo worked, had a donor base that included collectors. If donors heard that Vallo was supporting STOP, they could retaliate by pulling their funding. There were already galleries in Santa Fe in which Vallo wasn’t welcome.

The events were held in a hotel in downtown Santa Fe. For $35, the public could listen to panels about tribal experiences with repatriation and the Indian art market, most of them moderated by Vallo. They took place in the hotel’s ballroom, a carpeted and chandeliered hangar filled to capacity with attendees, the vast majority from the dealer community. “We were overwhelmed by the attendance,” Vallo said.

In the opening panel, auction house owners from Ohio and New Mexico discussed the optimism they have about their industry; it’s becoming more inclusive, they noted, and the number of controversial sales is shrinking. But, in the next panel, leaders from the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe and the Zuni Pueblo complicated the picture. There’s still little communication between dealers and tribal leaders, one said. Another talked about how tribal members, in need of money, occasionally felt pressured to sell to collectors.

When the panel on the STOP Act began, the conflicts became more explicit. Most of the tribal leaders voiced their approval of the legislation, but ATADA’s leaders objected, calling it unconstitutional. While collectors should do the right thing, one ATADA board member said, “we can’t undo the past. We should not be held to the bad decisions of our ancestors.”

View from the Acoma Pueblo.
Christian Heeb

IN THE AUDIENCE AT THE HOTEL sat a man named Jerold Collings. He is 77 years old and a rancher from Mule Creek, New Mexico, more than a five-hour drive southwest of Santa Fe. Collings, who is white, grew up on the banks of the Colorado River, where his parents had a fishing resort. He collected arrowheads from the time he was in grade school, scouring thousands of acres on neighbors’ ranches. Back then, as he remembered it, the typical tribal art collector would drive a pickup truck fitted with a camper. “He just went from trading post to trading post, buying something at one and selling it at the next,” Collings told me over the phone. His family spent summers in a town with a small pawnshop, where he started purchasing baskets. He admired how much time went into making them. He made connections in Southwest tribal art dealer networks, and the collecting continued.

Collings remembered how easy it used to be to buy large collections, when traders would call him up to come look at what they had. “You might see a table of stuff, and it would all be for sale,” he said. He would save his money to buy whole collections for hundreds of dollars, which he saw as a steal. “Now, it’s much more sophisticated,” he said, “and collectors are looking for the impossible dream.”

When his mother died, in 1984, Collings put cardboard boxes from her home into storage. They remained untouched for nearly 30 years, until 2012, when he opened them. Some boxes held family mementos; others were full of items his family had bought over the years in pawnshops. In a box, by itself, lay the Acoma shield.

EVE told him they wanted feathers on it, so before he shipped it  to France, he had turkey feathers dyed to look like eagles’ and wove them into the shield himself. 

Collings didn’t think the shield was worth keeping; he told me he had seen many others like it sold in the past, and that it didn’t strike him as special. “I didn’t have any use for it, and the market in the U.S. was horrible,” he said. EVE told him they wanted feathers on it, so before he shipped it  to France, he had turkey feathers dyed to look like eagles’ and wove them into the shield himself. “It went through one auction and it didn’t get a bid,” he said, “and in the second auction, all the furor arises.”

Following EVE’s sale, the auction house sent Collings a box with other items he had consigned that hadn’t sold. The shield, still under the warrant’s protection, remained at EVE. The box stalled in customs, and in December 2018, the U.S. attorney’s office summoned him regarding the shield; Collings believes the shipment is how the government got his name.

Collings wrote a formal response through a lawyer: “The evidence of any theft of the Shield from the Acoma Pueblo is based entirely on hearsay and speculation,” his complaint read. “As stated in the Museum catalogue, the Shield has been listed as either Acoma or Jemez Pueblo. … It is also possible that the Shield is not of Indian origin at all.” He requested that the shield be returned directly to him.

Collings told me that, early on, he had attempted to coordinate a transfer of the shield to Acoma through an intermediary, before the government got involved. (The tribe’s lawyers said they received vague messages from middlemen, but none of the offers seemed reliable.) He had no problem with Acoma’s claim to the shield, but he didn’t want to get involved in a legal case with the government, whose approach he saw as “an overreaction on steroids,” he said.  Collings remembers going to Santa Fe for the panels on the STOP Act. He remembers Riley explaining the impossibility of items like the shield receiving price tags. To Acoma, Riley had said, they were like family members. How could you put a price on family? “Those are two different views of the world,” Collings said. “And us folks are trying to survive in the middle.”

In the spring of 2019, U.S. officials shared Collings’ identity with Acoma. Vallo, now governor, invited Collings to Albuquerque to meet with him and the tribe’s lawyers, including Sims. Collings brought his wife, his attorney and a former ATADA president; Collings is not a member, but he’s well acquainted with the organization. They all sat in a conference room in the law office where Sims worked. For most of the meeting, only the lawyers spoke. Then, at the end, Vallo turned to Collings and explained what the shield meant to the tribe. “To me, it meant nothing more than a reasonably attractive art object,” Collings said. “But, to him, I could tell that it was important.”

For Vallo, the meeting was challenging. He wanted to represent his tribe tactfully, and he appreciated Collings’ willingness to talk. But, he thought, why couldn’t Collings have stepped up sooner? How could any repatriation, with all its time, effort and emotion, ultimately boil down to the actions of one person? “It was hard to walk into that meeting and not voice a level of frustration,” Vallo told me. “It was probably one of the hardest things that I had to do this year.”

Soon after, in mid-July, Collings and his wife requested a second meeting with Vallo, this time with no attorneys. They sat for nearly two hours in a small, three-sided room in the law office, decorated with bookcases and a small statue of Po’pay, the Ohkay Owingeh tribal member who led the 1680 Pueblo Revolt against the Spanish. They shared a plate of pastries and talked about their horses.

Then, Collings told Vallo he wanted to help. The parties signed a document. Collings, as the shield’s consignor, would direct EVE to release the shield into U.S. custody as quickly as possible. An FBI agent would travel there to pick it up and bring it home.

Sims called Riley, only recently retired, to let him know the news. He asked him not to announce it to anyone, but to be prepared to gather when the shield landed in New Mexico. Riley hung up and told his wife he was going for a walk. Outside, he shouted with joy.

Enchanted Mesa in New Mexico, home to the original Acoma Pueblo settlement.
Tom Till
THAT FALL, AN FBI AGENT flew to Paris. He picked up the shield from EVE and brought it to the U.S. Embassy, where he swaddled it in thin sheets of flexible foam to keep it snug and dry. At various stops between Paris and New Mexico, he talked his way out of opening the package for customs officials. On each leg of the flight, he bought a second seat for the shield, keeping it at his side.

On the evening of Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, Vallo sat in a seating area opposite of the security entrance in the Albuquerque airport, waiting for the shield, the same place where he had waited for the first NAGPRA repatriation of ancestral remains in 1995. He was accompanied by one of Acoma’s lawyers and the tribal interpreter; they reminisced about previous repatriations, and he held an earth-toned Pendleton blanket he had brought to clothe the shield. When the agent landed, Vallo met him and other federal officials in a private customs room. He watched the man unwrap the foam. “All I could do was cover it with the blanket,” Vallo told me, “just to say, ‘You are home, and it’s time to go.’ ” He wanted to get the shield in front of tribal members as soon as possible. He carried it to one of the federal agent’s cars and sat with it in the backseat, singing for it as they drove north through downtown Albuquerque and to the BIA’s offices. Riley, Acoma’s lawyers, Vallo’s father and mother, and members of Acoma’s tribal council and religious leadership stood in a second-floor conference room to receive it. Vallo texted Sims at each step — we have it, we’re in the car, we’re in the parking lot, we’re in the elevator. He finally entered the room with the shield wrapped in his arms.

“I thought I was going to faint, to be honest. It just seemed so vibrant, and happy, to just be present.”

Sims said that watching the shield be revealed to the room was one of the most surreal moments in his career. It gave off a palpable kind of power. The tribe’s religious leaders addressed it and made offerings, acknowledging the long journey it had just finished. It struck Riley that it was the first time he had knowingly been near the shield, despite years of work on its behalf. “I had seen it in pictures, but to actually see it,” Riley told me. “I was speechless.” Vallo, as he placed it on the table, felt the weight of the moment, especially with his father, who had been the first governor to fight for its repatriation, being there. “I thought I was going to faint, to be honest,” he said. Its colors seemed even brighter against the blanket. “It just seemed so vibrant, and happy, to just be present.”

Acoma leaders spent hours with the shield, praying until nearly midnight. Some gave speeches, in Keres and in English, and expressed gratitude to the agents who had helped return it. Riley placed a handful of cornmeal near it in thanks. The shield was placed in a secure location in the BIA building, and then everyone left. Riley walked out in the dark, to his black truck in the parking lot, and sat in the driver’s seat for a while before driving home. It was hard to believe that, this time, the meetings, testimonies and speeches had succeeded. Later that week, the shield returned to the Acoma Pueblo, and the tribe held a ceremony to welcome it. Snow fell on the mesa as it arrived.

A SINGLE TWO-LANE ROAD WINDS down from Old Acoma’s mesa. It cuts between towers of sandy rock before coming to an Indian service route. At that intersection is the Sky City Cultural Center, which also houses the Haak’u Museum — the tribe’s own record of its art and history, there to educate visitors while they wait to board the shuttles that will guide them through the pueblo. In 2000, the last Acoma cultural center burned down in a fire. Vallo, before he became governor, helped direct an architecture firm on the design of the current one. It is a grand building with a kind of pueblo minimalism, a sleek, modern interpretation of the square adobe structures and wooden beams on the mesa.

Around the time the shield returned, the Haak’u Museum had two exhibits. One focused on the tribe’s pottery, the art form for which the pueblo is best known. Glass cases jutted out from the walls, holding the artists’ pots — many round and convex near their openings, like acorn squash, and covered with the thin, delicate lines that Acoma potters have perfected.

The other side of the museum held a display called “Growing Up Pueblo.” It was mostly paragraphs of text, printed onto plaques spaced out around the room: interviews with elders in the community, remembering what it was like to grow up in Acoma in the mid-20th century. “We played in the ditch at my grandparents’ house and got in trouble for being muddy and wet,” a quote attributed to a woman named Jolene Mariano read. “My mom would tell us how her mom used to make dough. I inherited all the bread pans after she died.” Many others discussed preserving the Keres language: “Jennifer feels that as a community, there needs to be encouragement and sharing of tradition to help preserve it for the future.” A man named Elardo Garcia mourned the memories he had lost: “I’ve had a lot of health problems over the past three to four years. That’s why I don’t remember any of my childhood,” his plaque read. “It is frustrating not to know, especially when my grandkids ask me how I grew up, and all I can tell them is, ‘I don’t know.’”

In other places at the Pueblo of Acoma, ceremonial items like the shield are placed to rest after completing their journey back home. These are the items that could have been purchased for the sake of someone’s private museum: to hang in their homes, or perhaps to sit in storage, collecting strange value from an outsider’s gaze. Instead, they wait while cultural leaders decide how and when they will rejoin the life and memory of the tribe. What the tribe had on display for the public was, instead, their living members: the pottery that they make, and the memories they tell, or try to tell, their grandchildren.

Elena Saavedra Buckley is a contributing editor at High Country News. Email her at at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

This coverage was supported by contributors to the High Country News Research Fund.