A chance meeting helps return sacred artifacts to a local group

Nearly 20 years ago, Andrea Carmen, a member of Yaqui Nation, an indigenous group in Mexico and the United States, attended an event to mark International Indigenous Day at a museum in Stockholm. She was then invited to view the museum’s collection of American objects.

What she noticed made her understand: Maaso Kova, the ceremonial head of a deer, sacred to the Yaki nation.

“I couldn’t believe what I saw,” she said. Carmen spoke about her discovery at the Ethnographic Museum. It was, she added, “like seeing a child in a cage.”

For the Yaqui nation, whose members live in the state of Sonora in northern Mexico and parts of southern Arizona, Maaso Cova is a sacred object used in ceremonial dances to connect the physical world with the spiritual world of their ancestors.

After Ms. Carmen returned to Arizona, she asked a Yaki chief to petition the museum to return the deer’s head and all other collar items she owned. It took the museum 11 years to issue an official response and eight more to return the artifacts.

This month, representatives and officials from the museum, the Swedish and Mexican governments and the United Nations met in Sweden to formally authorize the transfer of the deer’s head, along with 23 other items, back to the collar nation.

The artifacts, stored in two metal containers, were sent to Mexico City, where the Mexican government will hand them over to the Yaki nation.

“We are so happy to receive our Maaso Cova, who for us is a living being who has been locked up for a long time,” said Juan Gregorio Jaime Leon, a member of Yaqui in Mexico. (Photographing the head of a sacred deer or displaying an image of the artifact is considered inappropriate by the collar nation.)

The return of Maaso Kova is the first successful repatriation of cultural artifacts to an indigenous group observed by the United Nations under its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoplesaccording to Kristen Carpenter, a former UN official involved in the talks.

Without UN pressure on Sweden, the collars would almost certainly not be able to reclaim the artifacts, she said. Carmen, executive director of the International Council on Indian Treaties, a non-governmental organization focused on indigenous sovereignty.

In recent years, as talk of racism and the legacy of colonialism has increased around the world, discussions on the repatriation of cultural objects that have been stolen, taken under duress or removed without the consent of their owners intensified in museums and other cultural centers.

The main challenge in repatriation is the question of origin – how a museum came to be an artifact.

But the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, ratified in 2007 and agreed by Sweden, states that Indigenous people have “the right to use and control their ceremonial objects” and allows Yaqui to defend its claim. , regardless of how the objects are obtained.

“The fact that indigenous people have their sacred objects and human remains in universities, museums and private auction houses around the world speaks to a thinking that is still largely based on the doctrine of discovery.Miss. said Carmen. “We are changing this worldview.”

Another obstacle to the repatriation of indigenous objects is that countries often do not recognize indigenous groups as legitimate governments, madam. said Carmen.

Swedish law requires that all negotiations for the repatriation of state property be conducted between nations. The Yaqui nation managed to negotiate with Sweden through the United Nations and then received Mexico’s consent to represent the group during the final agreement.

The Ethnographic Museum is one of the four cultural centers that make up the National Museums of World Culture, which are managed by the Swedish government. For years, the museum has argued that there is no reason to return the items to collars, as they were donated, according to Adriana Munoz, curator of the museum’s collections in America.

But after the United Nations intervened in 2014 and made its own repatriation request, the museum produced a report to determine how the deer’s head and other items reached the institution, Ms. Said Munoz.

Some items come from two Danish anthropologists who conducted research in Tlaxcala, Mexico, east of Mexico City, in the 1930s and were given the artifacts by military officer Yaqui at the end of a protracted land rights war between Mexico and the cool people, according to Ms. Munoz.

Anthropologists helped Yaki after the war and befriended military officer General Jose Andres Amarilas Valenzuela, she said.

The rest of the items, including a deer’s head, were purchased by a group of Swedish researchers who worked with the museum and were invited by anthropologists in Tlaxcala to see Yaqui perform a ceremonial deer dance, Ms. Said Munoz.

After completing its review, the museum told Yaqui Nation in a letter that it would not return the items because their origin was “allowed”.

But the Yaki nation had a different version of history. They said General Amarilla was actually fighting for the Mexican army and helping to monitor Tlascala collars that had been taken prisoner of war and sent to work in mines. Although he was strong, he was considered a “traitor”, ma’am. said Carmen.

“This case illustrates that there is a really huge gap in understanding between the parties involved in this type of claim,” she said. Carpenter, a former UN official, said.

Although both sides disagree on the origin of the items, Ms. Carmen said they both agreed on the main reason for their return: their religious value.

Miss. Munoz, with the help of activists and anthropologists working for the National Institute of Anthropology in Hermosillo, Mexico, conducted his own research and recommended the return of the objects, explaining that my review “opened my eyes to the importance of these objects.”

After the return of the Yaqui artifacts, tribes from Canada, Panama and the Caribbean sought out Ms. Carmen’s assistance in their own repatriation efforts, including some items also preserved by the National Museums of World Culture.

Miss. Carmen hopes that the process of recovering Yaqui’s items can be applied to other indigenous repatriation campaigns.

She and Ms. Carpenter urged UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency, to create a database of indigenous artifacts in museums and universities to make it easier for groups to find objects.

They also want the agency to set up a certification that requires the consent of the local population to transport an item to prevent auction houses from acquiring and selling repatriable items, and to designate a UN body as the official intermediary for future repatriation.

“We are calling for a new relationship,” she said. Carmen said, “through which we can leave behind the injustices and harms of the past and heal the wounds so that we can begin to engage in cultural exchange based on a genuine appreciation of the rights of indigenous peoples.”

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