Trading in Native artifacts does real harm

Federal law is woefully incomplete and ineffective when it comes to protecting Indigenous lands from looting.


How would you react if your ancestors’ skeletons were kept locked in private or museum closets? How would you feel if your ceremonial objects, so central to the practice of your religion, were auctioned off, mounted on walls or placed behind glass, forever depriving you of the rituals and traditions associated with them? And how would you like your culture to be defined by someone else’s imagination of who you are?

The Hopi Tribe and other Puebloan societies continue to fight French auction houses that promote the sale of sacred belongings that these Native nations regard as critical to their customs and their heritage. Tribes elsewhere have been alerted to other potential national and international auctions that could foster disappearances of their own cultural patrimonies. Yet traders and collectors continue to perpetuate these transfers.

It is reprehensible to lock away religious belongings that are vital to cultural continuation in museums and private collections — a veritable extension of war by other means. Individuals, institutions and organizations that continue to hold sacred items take on contemporary roles as villains benefiting from a history of violence and conquest, claiming property rights over the lifeblood of Indigenous communities.

It is reprehensible to lock away religious belongings that are vital to cultural continuation in museums and private collections — a veritable extension of war by other means. 

Existing federal statutes and international treaties are woefully incomplete and often ineffective at preventing the escalation of looting on Indian reservations, public or private lands, and they are completely inadequate when it comes to halting private land foraging. Diggers on private lands need only the landowner’s permission. Sacred items and even the remains of ancestors and their burial belongings continue to be sold in the “art” market, without any notification of the affected tribes. Auctioneers and traders of “antique” Indian art claim that they need tribes to furnish lists of what constitutes their sacred items. Otherwise, we are told, these dealers have no way of knowing how to make such determinations on their own. This is both specious and disingenuous. The high market value the collectors place on these items is indicative of their special attributes of spirituality. Traders cannot claim ignorance and, at the same time, benefit from the “perception” of sacredness.

In May 2018, artifacts from the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde are returned to the tribe after being held at the British Museum in London for nearly 120 years. Here, Assistant Collections Manager for the British Museum Cynthia McGowan, left, handles a woven basket in Grand Ronde, Oregon, that was collected from the tribe in the 1870s. Looking on are tribal chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy, right, tribal council member Kathleen George, center, and tribal attorneys Rob Greene and Jennifer Biesack.
Gillian Flaccus / AP

Collectors should be held to a reasonable standard: If they have reason to suspect that an item is culturally and historically important, they have a duty to investigate. Once they determine an item’s Indigenous affiliation, they must return it to that Nation. But if comprehensive, meaningful and systemic repatriation is to occur, tribes and Native nations cannot rely solely on laws created by the colonizing powers. Indigenous governments can enact or amend their own laws to articulate civil and criminal penalties for the taking and holding of prohibited items. Tribes can systematize what items are secure for sale and appreciation and create certification mechanisms of provenance. Most importantly, they must seize their own processes by enacting comprehensive consultation and repatriation laws. They must dictate the terms by which consultation and the recovery of sacred belongings will take place.

One cannot categorize or treat repatriation as an issue isolated from its context in historical genocide and the subsequent intrusion into Native peoples’ cultures. The consequences of conquest — the absolute authority of the United States government over Native nations and the concretized doctrines of nearly unshakeable property laws — cry for a paradigm shift in how our attitudes shape our policies toward “Indians.” We are battling a romanticism whose consequences include continued repression. Tribal laws that enhance self-determination and provide avenues and structures for redress must be seen as educational, be self-validated and then given measurable support from and be upheld in concert with federal and state laws. Native Nations should not be bound to Western-centric laws that separate the realms of intellectual property protections into the tangible and the intangible. A sacred or holy belonging is the repository of a community’s traditional knowledge, a part of a holistic whole both physical and metaphysical.

When a person collects Native bones, knowledge and artifacts, there is a tendency to project onto those objects an intangible awareness of the collectors’ own special significance, as if those belongings hold mysticism — Indian power — and can somehow endow their possessor with an efflorescence of adopted sacredness. People who collect these objects say they are honoring the Indians. But appropriation is not the kinfolk of honoring. It is the dark side of intention. Our intentions are irrelevant and often harmful. Yes, one can buy, love, and enjoy contemporary works of Native carvers and smiths and artists. That is appreciation. But to hold onto sacred belongings is anathema to integrity and moral ways. Very few have the right to revere, to venerate, these objects without the necessary contextual knowledge and permission. Others cannot in any way understand them, nor comprehend the importance they hold for an Indigenous culture.

Robert Alan Hershey has specialized in Indian Affairs for nearly five decades. He is Professor Emeritus at both the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law (Arizona Law) and American Indian Studies. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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