Ceremonial Masks Return Home

A growing awareness by museums has led to the repatriation of some Native American ceremonial objects, but the issue is a hard-fought one involving the art market, legal ownership, and the religious rights of offended tribes

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

'REPATRIATION' may sound like a sedate subject on the surface. But the return of ceremonial and funerary articles from museums to the various American Indian cultures to which they belong is fraught with high drama and the clash of cultures. Repatriation carries both the force of law and a growing sensitivity among museum officials toward Indian culture and human-rights issues. Repatriation is a hot topic in Indian country, one of the hottest of the '90s. Indians perceive it linked as much to freedom of religion as it is to rightful ownership of highly prized and valuable artifacts.

The issue burned a little hotter recently when Elizabeth Sackler bought three ceremonial "masks two Hopi and one thought to be Navajo - from a New York auction house with the announced intention of returning them to the tribes from which they were taken early in the century [please see article below]. Indian leaders of both tribes had protested the very display as well as the sale of the items. They have expressed gratitude for Miss Sackler's rescue of the objects, but the fact that Sotheby's auctione d

them is a source of outrage and pain.

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"The outside, the public, particularly the art market, sees these religious objects as objects of art," says Leigh Jenkins, director of the Hopi Preservation Center. "But to Hopi people they are living, sacred beings, they are not 'masks.' So it is sacrilege to place monetary value on them. It baffles the Hopi mind, because it is like selling human beings."

The "Ahola" and "Mud Head" figures will return to their Hopi villages with solemn ceremony some time soon. Because Hopi religion is highly structured, there is virtually no confusion about which village and clan owns them. Other objects from other tribes may be somewhat harder to identify and return to appropriate custodians.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act sets criteria for rightful ownership of the objects. In early planning for repatriation "there was a great concern among the museum community," says Richard Conn, curator of the Denver Art Museum's American Indian collection.

"If they were going to return these objects, they wanted to be certain that they wouldn't end up being sold to a collector ... that the objects would receive proper care." The greatest assurance of that regard is the Indian people's reverent attitude toward the objects they retrieve from the museums.

Richard West (Cheyenne/Arapaho), director of the National Museum for the American Indian affirmed that "these objects are obviously very dear to the tribes." Mr. West, like Mr. Conn, has a great deal of confidence that they will be cared for in an entirely appropriate way.

While ceremonial and funerary objects may well be treasured above price by the Indian people to whom they belong, the threat of theft is real. Pot hunters and grave robbers continue to haunt Indian burial grounds, and the black market in Indian artifacts involving galleries and private collectors is international in scope, according to Mr. Jenkins. It is nearly impossible to police the hundreds of thousands of acres around the Hopi villages and other pueblos. In some cases, items have been stolen from r e

positories on reservations because the objects were never meant to be held in high security.

But intensified educational efforts have stemmed that problem at Hopi as people begin to keep a more watchful eye on community religious treasures. Still, these items must be cared for in the traditional way, Jenkins points out. They can't be simply locked up, since religious leaders must have easy access to them. Jenkins insists that the art market must become aware that a thing of religious significance to the Hopi people should not be bought and sold. And Roy Talahaftewa, a member of the Kachina cl a

n, would like to see even stricter punishment than the repatriation act demands for those who deal in black-market Indian religious objects.

An excellent solution to the preservation of valued religious objects is the reservation-site museum, such as the Makah in Neah Bay, Wash. West points to it as a superb example of an Indian-managed community museum.

Rick Hill (Tuscarora), museum director at Santa Fe's Institute of American Indian Art, says that over 100 such museums have sprung up around the country and in Canada. Mr. Hill has designed curriculum in his Museum Studies department to deal expressly with repatriation issues.

Hill points out that there are many options. Museums are afraid of depleting their collections.

But in many instances, Indian groups are happy to allow museums to care for religious articles if they can be returned periodically to the tribe for ceremonial use - a right so often denied them in the past.

The key to appreciating the importance of repatriation lies in understanding the very different world views of tribal groups, Hill says. Still, the now legal fact of repatriation has provided an unexpected boon.

"Yes, there is a concern about how we are going to define sacredness," says Hill. "Are there some limits to it? We will in this generation reassess the significance of these objects and we can learn from our elders and pass on what we have learned. What is sacred? What is essential? What do we need? How do we use it and how do we take care of it? So this gives us an opportunity to really establish the propriety of sacredness in our daily lives...."

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