The sole Native American member on a committee that advises the president on international cultural heritage agreements was removed and replaced last week, members of the committee confirmed. Shannon Keller O'Loughlin, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, was appointed to the Department of State's Cultural Property Advisory Committee in 2016 by former President Barack Obama. She is the first and only Native American to have ever served on the committee.
The advisory committee is responsible for making recommendations on whether or not to enter into cultural property agreements with foreign governments. Those agreements can help protect culturally significant archeological property by cracking down on illegal exports, and providing museum training and on-the-ground preservation efforts.
"I was surprised," O'Loughlin says, of learning she was being replaced. "And I was substantively disappointed that the only person removed [from the committee] was the Native American woman attorney. It shows how little the administration values the Indigenous voice."
President Donald Trump's former White House lawyer, Stefan Passantino, was appointed as O'Loughlin's replacement last Thursday. Among the dozen current members of the committee, Passantino stands out: While most are archeology and museum professionals, or specialists in the international sale of cultural property and historic preservation, he is an attorney who specializes in campaign finance law.
Passantino helped form and counsel Super PACs in the 2016 election, served as deputy White House counsel to Trump until 2018, and was hired this year by the Trump Organization to assist with congressional inquiries into Trump's businesses.
Passantino's predecessor, O'Loughlin, specializes in Native American cultural heritage law. Prior to her appointment to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, she advised the Department of the Interior as a member of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Review Committee.
According to a spokesperson for the Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, both of them were placed on the committee to serve as representatives of the general public, not as specialists. O'Loughlin's term as a committee member officially expired in 2018, but she had continued to serve and was preparing for a committee meeting set to take place at the end of this month when she received word of her replacement. All the current members of the committee are also serving expired terms.
O'Loughlin says that, given the amount of looting and trafficking of Native American cultural property that has gone on, it's crucial to have a Native American representative on the committee to push for bilateral agreements with foreign countries that can help restrict the sale of Native American property abroad.
She thinks not pushing for these agreements to help stop the black market trading of Native American cultural artifacts is a lost opportunity. "The [cultural property] agreements have often been completely one-sided and work to protect other countries when they could also work to prevent the exportation of Native American objects," she says. "Now there will be no one there to speak to that."
Kathleen Sharp wrote about the international market for Native American artifacts for Pacific Standard in 2017:
[The Hopi's] most sacred religious items are fetching exorbitant prices on an international black market, which is estimated to be worth as much as $4 billion a year. "We have a huge problem in the U.S. because we don't protect our country's artifacts," says Martin McAllister, a forensic archaeologist. Art collectors from Dubai and Beijing can purchase an exceptional Native American item at auction in London, Brussels, and Paris—and the tribe from which it came will probably never see it again. "It's not just the legacy of Native Americans that we're losing," says Marietta Eaton, director of the Anasazi Heritage Center. "It's all of ours."
O'Loughlin also points out that the political relationship between the United States government and Native American tribes, which are sovereign nations, makes having Native American representation on the committee essential for diplomacy.
The National Congress of American Indians, a non-profit advocacy group that works to protect tribal governance and treaty rights announced Monday that they were "troubled" by O'Loughlin's removal.
"We stand firm in the idea that representation from tribal nations is necessary, within any administration, so that there is full scope and understanding around the protections and importance of Indian Country's sacred items," Kevin Allis, the NCAI's chief executive officer, said in a statement.
Cultural property agreements are a result of the 1970 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) meeting in Paris that led to the signing of the international antiquities agreement—the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The act gives countries the right to recover stolen or illegally exported objects from other member countries, but there is still debate over whether that applies to private collectors.
Cultural property agreements and import restrictions currently exist between the U.S. and countries including Peru, China, Italy, Libya, Egypt, and Bolivia.