Stealing from Indians didn’t end in the 19th century: Many sacred American Indian masks, pipes and other ceremonial artifacts still find their way into private collections. However, according to the American Indian Ritual Object Repatriation Foundation, most of these items properly belong to Indian tribes.
The Repatriation Foundation got its start
in 1992, after an auction house refused a request from the Hopi and
Navajo tribes to stop the sale of three sacred masks. A collector,
Elizabeth Sackler, bought the masks and returned them to the
tribes. The gratitude she got from Natives and non-Natives alike
spurred her to start a foundation to get ceremonial artifacts back
to the people who created them.
One of the
foundation’s aims is to educate people about the distinction
between sacred objects and art that’s appropriate for sale.
Karenne Wood, repatriation coordinator, says that it can be hard
for the average person to tell the difference sometimes. However,
she notes, "sacred objects didn’t just sit on a shelf.
They’ve been in many ceremonies, and they look old and used."
Unscrupulous dealers may obtain sacred artifacts through
grave looting or theft, then sell them to unsuspecting buyers.
Although the definition of ritual objects varies from tribe to
tribe, if you have a new Navajo rug or Zuni fetish, chances are it
was made specifically to be sold. However, if Great Aunt Lily left
you a 150-year-old eagle-feather headdress, you might want to give
the foundation a call.
For more information, see www.repa
triationfoundation.org, or call 240-314-7158.