Souvenir or sacred artifact?

  • Hopi Pueblo kachina dolls, painted and decorated with feathers

    Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library
  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, or call 240-314-7158.

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