Indigenous nations today are struggling to preserve their cultural identity, not by placing it behind the glass of a museum, but by the active renewal of their collective and individual cultural traditional practices. The unique religious and secular items each culture creates are fundamental to its continuity. For centuries the Indigenous people of the Americas have suffered the steady loss of their cultural property. The international community is finally beginning to recognize the obvious right a community has to its own creations. The new awareness of this important link between people and cultural artifacts is resulting in the successful restitution of previously lost or stolen items.
Considering that cultural property constitutes one of the basic elements of civilization and national culture, and that its true value can be appreciated only in relation to the fullest possible information regarding its origin, history, and traditional setting. So reads the preamble of the Convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export, and transfer of ownership of cultural property, adopted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) at its sixteenth session in Paris on November 14, 1970. This convention is the first major step taken by the international community to address the centuries of plunder of cultural property of Indigenous peoples. Vast quantities of artwork, religious artifacts, and even funerary remains have found their way into museums and private collections worldwide. This traffic, often in the form of outright theft, continues today. Items are taken, whether for selfish purposes or out of ignorance, without consideration of the damage done to a living culture when it is stripped of the items of its heritage.
To many people who trace their roots to European cultures, the scientific study or museum preservation of cultural property is considered of great value. It is important, however, to recognize that these views are not necessarily shared by Indigenous peoples. Items of cultural or religious value created by Indigenous peoples were not intended to be placed in museum collections. The removal of cultural materials to museum archives severs the living connection and contact a people has with its works and past. This is especially true of cultures with an oral rather than written tradition. Museums and cultural scientists must strive to maintain the vigor of the culture that created the objects they seek to study.
All too frequently archeologists and anthropologists consider the dead to be objects of curiosity and study; a storehouse of biological information as anthropologist Johan Reinhard says, referring to the frozen body of an Inca girl that he exhumed in Peru (see accompanying story). For Indigenous peoples, however, the dead are not scientific objects, they are their ancestors, perhaps even their family. Ancestors were interred with careful attention to respect and ritual that will see them to their proper destiny after death. These efforts are disturbed by archeologists, grave robbers, scientists and other collectors who continue to violate burial sites and the remains therein.
Standards for the protection of and respect for the cultural property of Indigenous peoples are greater today than ever before. Major museums and even some governments are cooperating with Indigenous nations to voluntarily repatriate objects to their cultures of origin. The United Nations and the United States are beginning to legally recognize the claims of Indigenous peoples to their cultural property. Unfortunately, individual governments and police forces are doing little if anything to cooperate with the United Nations. In addition, the US legislation is not applicable nor respected outside US borders.
Should an Indigenous nation wish to repatriate items removed from their community, they face a difficult but increasingly possible task. First the seriousness and costs of the effort must be considered. Any individual or institution that has gone through great expense and effort to acquire and maintain valuable cultural items will not be eager to give them up. Securing the goodwill and cooperation of the party currently in possession of the items in question is crucial to any repatriation effort and can eliminate the need for legal battles. The legitimacy and coordination of the repatriation effort are also influential. Any documentation or testimony that can assist in proving the claimants position will be very helpful. Also the party making a claim for any items should consider what measures will be taken to insure the protection of the items once regained; no one is likely to part with rare artifacts if they suspect that they will be sold, stolen, or mishandled in any way.
Many resources exist to aid Indigenous peoples repatriation campaigns. Non-governmental organizations, charitable groups, and other Indigenous entities may be sympathetic to repatriation efforts. These groups may provide contacts, publicity, council, or other forms of assistance. Some communities have been successfully pursuing repatriation for many years and have developed mechanisms within their political system to respond to concerns involving culturally sensitive materials. Journalists may be able to provide publicity and help bring public opinion behind the repatriation efforts. Some governments (most notably the United States) and the United Nations may also be of assistance.
The United Nations is taking an increased interest in cultural heritage and in the protection of Indigenous rights. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has taken up the issue of the protection and restitution of cultural property. For this purpose UNESCO established the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation (henceforth, just the Committee) which currently numbers twenty-two member states of UNESCO. It will hold its ninth session in Paris from September 16-19. The eighth session was attended by sixty-nine nations, international customs and legal bodies, the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), and the International Council of Museums. Several important ideas were laid down including the rights of a people to expect legal protection of cultural property and secure aid in its return. The International Council of Museums has voluntarily agreed not to admit items into museum collections that are not proven to be legitimately acquired and to inform authorities if approached with illicit material. So far the Committee has not discussed any cases concerning Indigenous peoples.
The United Nations Economic and Social Councils Commission on Human Rights adopted a declaration at its eleventh session providing for the protection of the rights of Indigenous peoples including, the right to the restitution of cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs. (Article 12). More recently, in June of 1995 the Economic and Social Council drafted the report entitled Protection of the heritage of Indigenous people. Although the report lacks any real legal power, it helps to lend legitimacy to individual claims.
In November 1990 the US Congress enacted Public Law 101-601, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, also known as NAGPRA. This law provides a legal infrastructure to aid in the protection and restitution of funerary remains, and associated items of cultural patrimony. NAGPRA outlaws the traffic in such items, mandating a maximum of five years in prison and/or a fine for Whoever knowingly sells, purchases, uses for profit, or transports for sale or profit, the human remains of a Native American or Native American cultural items[1170 (a)(b)]. NAGPRA also requires museums and other institutions receiving federal funding to supply inventories of their items and return the items upon the request of a tribal authority. Thirty-four states have passed additional laws to fill gaps in the NAGPRA legislation.
Although NAGPRA only applies to federally funded institutions within the United States, it has set a precedent with many museum authorities on an international level. Museum institutions in the US have also repatriated items to Indigenous communities in South America outside NAGPRAs jurisdiction. One notable case was the return of several Tzantzas (head trophies) from the Smithsonian Institute to the Shuar peoples in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Austrian president, Thomal Klestil, returned the mantle of Montezuma to Mexico. The beautiful mantle of feathers and gold had been out of Mexico for over 400 years.
An early and important repatriation effort in North America was the struggle of the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico to return the sacred Ahayu:da figures to their traditional resting places in tribal shrines. Figures representing the twin war gods, Uyuyemi and Maiasewi are placed in shrines to harness their potentially destructive powers. The Zuni believe that when Spanish and US agents stole the communally owned figures from their designated resting places, it caused the spiritual imbalance that the world is suffering in this century. The return of the figures to their shrines is necessary to restore harmony and protect the Zuni community.
Anthropologist T.J. Ferguson, a member of the Ahayu:da repatriation effort, warns, It is extremely important that both tribes and museums recognize that the amount of time and money required to assemble information and reach an agreement can be substantial. This was the case for the Zuni people, for whom the saga of the Ahayu:da lasted nearly a century. The first objects were removed to the Smithsonian in 1897. In April of 1978, Zuni leaders began repatriation efforts by meeting for the first time with representatives from the Denver Art Museum. By 1992 the Zuni secured the return of 69 Ahayu:da from 37 different sources, representing all known US copies.
Most of the efforts of the Zuni to repatriate the Ahayu:da were accomplished without any legal backing from NAGPRA, which was not passed until November of 1990. The struggle of the Zuni to mount their repatriation campaign was intense, but in the end they prevailed. Their success is due mainly to dedication and cooperation. The museums were not, at that time, required by law to cooperate with the Zuni requests, nor did the Zuni representatives seek a legal confrontation. Instead, the Zuni approached the matter by presenting a solid case to museum officials and embarking on a series of friendly negotiations. Cooperation and respect kept the negotiations from becoming adversarial. Although the museums stood to lose valuable portions of their collections, they respected the sincerity and legitimacy of the Zuni appeals.
One of the concerns the Smithsonian raised before agreeing to return cultural artifacts was the security of the figures. The Zuni developed elaborate measures, including surveillance of the shrines, to protect the Ahayu:da from repeated theft. Indian tribes requesting repatriation of human remains and artifacts should be ready, as the Zunis were, to address questions from museums about the security of artifacts after repatriation, says Ferguson.
Repatriation appeals can even begin a friendly cooperation between museums and Indigenous peoples. The Zuni provided valuable information to the museums regarding the nature and significance of items in the museum collection and the museum provided a secure record of cultural artifacts and history that they shared with the Zuni Pueblo. Zuni artists and ceramics students benefited from studying pottery in the Smithsonian collection. Zuni religious leaders also guided the museums curators in appropriate handling procedures for those sacred objects that remain in museum collections.
The power and continuity of Zuni culture and religion have been reinforced by the return of the Ahayu:da to their shrine on the Zuni Indian Reservation, and that is good, says curator of ethnology and Zuni anthropologist, Edmund Ladd.
For the Aymara people of Coroma in the southern Altiplano of Bolivia, the sacred garments of Coroma are communal artifacts that illustrate genealogies and are believed to embody the souls of their ancestors. Some garments are 400 to 500 years old.
In early 1988, Professor John Murra, a well-known ethnohistorian from Cornell University, received a postcard announcing an ethnic art exhibition in San Francisco that featured the sacred weavings of Coroma. He recognized the weavings as those that had been stolen or bought illegally from the Aymara community in the late 1970s and 80s. He contacted the Bolivian embassy and social scientist Cristina Bubba Zamora who was inventorying the Coroma weavings at the time through HISBOL (a Bolivian grassroots development organization).
Concerned community elders emphasized the importance of the weavings and considered the discovery of the art dealers collection as a sign of their ancestors spirits wishing to return home. When a sacred garment is taken from the community, a Coromeño believes that the spirits of the ancestors have been kidnaped, explains Susan Lobo, one of the advocates of the Coroma repatriation efforts.
The Bolivian embassy and two representatives from Coroma contacted United States authorities and in February of 1988 US Customs officials confiscated about 1000 objects (mostly weavings) from the dealer. Delegates from Coroma then went to California to identify the collection confiscated by US Customs. Our ancestors must be so sad and lonely, commented one of the delegates viewing the weavings .
Native Americans in the US and academics joined Cristina Bubba Zamora in rallying support for the people of Coroma. A San Francisco law firm also aided the coalition. With the backing of the UNESCO convention, signed by both the US and Bolivia, the return of forty-nine of the weavings was secured. In September 1992, Bolivian President Zamora received the weavings from the US government on behalf of the people of Coroma.
The extreme difficulty and expense in tracing, identifying and proving that the weavings were purchased illegally was a major obstacle in this case. Many items could not be determined to be illicitly obtained and had to be returned to the dealer. The return of the weavings attracted renewed interest and respect for the ancestral religion among many younger Coromeños who had previously shown less interest in traditional culture.
The success of the Zuni and Aymara in recovering sacred artifacts from museums and unscrupulous collectors is an important step in the prevention of the extinction of Indigenous peoples living culture. Currently, the UN Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is slowly taking shape. Now is the time for Indigenous peoples to participate in this document and work on the issue of repatriation rights. Perhaps most importantly, everyone can help by being vigilant for the appearance of sacred items in the ethnic art market. t
Thanks to the following individuals who volunteered their time and expertise to the research of this article: Lyndel V. Prott, UNESCO (Paris); Marie Samuel, Yachay Wasi, Inc.; Pollyanna Nordstrand, American Indian Ritual Object Repatriation Foundation.
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