Sacred Indian artifacts and cultural objects, some of which date back possibly thousands of years, were stolen from Arizona tribes and sold on the black market, federal and tribal officials said.
On Thursday, tribal leaders asked for their return — no questions asked.
"Many of these objects have been handed down from generation to generation," said Hopi Tribal Chairman Wayne Taylor Jr. "When an object of cultural patrimony is lost to the black market . . . it helps unravel the fabric of our culture."
As part of a four-state initiative to recover stolen Indian artifacts and religious objects, federal prosecutors teamed with tribal leaders to offer a 90-day amnesty for the return of specific items. The amnesty program was announced in Phoenix.
Tribal representatives said the thefts have already done much cultural damage. Without the sacred objects, tribes have not been able to perform inductions into certain societies, healing and other ceremonies.
"The clock is ticking on these items," said Paul Charlton, U.S. District Attorney for the District of Arizona. "If they are not returned . . . the tribes to whom they belong will not be able to continue with their cultural and religious heritage."
After Aug. 18, investigators will pursue charges against those possessing the items, with maximum penalties of five years imprisonment and fines of up to $250,000 per item, Charlton said.
He said the black market spans the globe because of Internet auction houses.
One object, the Hopi Maraw Altar, stolen in 1979, represents a part of a ritual women’s society needed for initiations. Without it, the centuries-old society may cease to exist, said Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office.
He said investigators do have leads on some of the missing items.
Varnelda Grant, with the San Carlos Apache Tribe, said some of the stolen items represent spiritual beings. "When these items are disrespected in any way . . . the whole community suffers," she said.
Charlton said the amnesty only applies to the objects listed on the U.S. District Attorney’s Office Web site, but encouraged people with other artifacts taken from federal and Indian lands to contact officials. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs has set up a hotline at (800) 242-2772 about the amnesty program.
To see digital images of the specific missing Indian artifacts as well as places where artifacts can be returned, visit www.usdoj.gov/usao/az/