Who Owns Indian Artifacts?

Native Americans, legislators, and museums grapple with the return of sacred tribal objects

WHEN Barton Martza goes out for a jog around the Zuni Pueblo in southwestern New Mexico these days, he always stops off at the tribe's shrine to the war gods. There, on a dusty mesa overlooking Highway 53, the Zuni tribal councilman passes offerings of cornmeal or turquoise through the steel bars of a fortified shrine. Mr. Martza says he is continuing an ancient tribal practice that has been revived since the Zuni began retrieving what they call the Ahayu:da (ah-ha-YOO-dah) from institutions and collectors in 1978. Members of the tribe's Bear Clan carve two of the 2-foot-high wooden sculptures each year, and Martza says their worship ensures tribal safety, health, and success. The recent return of the old carved figures has also helped boost tribal morale, he says.

``I see it in the younger people, especially the high school age,'' Martza says in an interview at the wind-swept shrine. ``Before they take part in any track meets, they come up here and ask for endurance. So now they're really starting to understand our ways and customs and it's bringing back our people together.''

Documentation dating back to the early 1800s shows that anthropologists, archaeologists, geologists, explorers, and other visitors to the pueblo often took the war gods from the Zuni's tribal shrines. Jonathan Batkin, former co-director of the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, and now director of the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe, describes how photographer George Wharton James stole two of the war gods in 1898, according to James's own published accounts.

``He talked a young Zuni guide into showing him the shrine,'' Mr. Batkin says. ``And under the cover of night, wrapped in his coat, he snuck the two of them out of Zuni.''

Batkin says the museum inherited those two war gods from James's estate and just last April gave them back to the tribe, which immediately placed them in the shrine. In 1978, the tribe had built a stone wall around the principal shrine and reinforced it with steel bars and barbed wire to prevent further thefts.

According to Edmund Ladd, a Zuni who is curator of ethnology for the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, tribal leaders have managed to bring nearly 40 of these sculptures home from museums, galleries, and collectors around the country. He attributes their success to a tribal law that curators and gallery owners have come to respect. The law clearly places ownership with the entire tribe and forbids anyone to sell a war god.

``Nobody, not even a Zuni, not even the war priest, the rain priest, or the tribal chairman, nobody has the right to them individually,'' Mr. Ladd says. ``No one can have clear title to them. So when they're removed from the shrine, they're without a doubt stolen objects.''

The question of repatriation of such objects has recently made its way to Congress. This past spring and summer, Senate and House subcommittees heard testimony regarding the question of who owns the native American ceremonial items now held in museums, galleries, and private collections. Indian rights activists, lawyers, dealers, and museum officials testified on drafts of several congressional bills that are now in their final stages and could make their way to the floors of the full Senate and House in the fall.

ONE of the most controversial aspects of current congressional proposals is a requirement that museums receiving federal funds notify each tribe regarding sensitive materials in their collections and then return each item the tribe wants.

Sensitive materials include primarily skeletal remains. Ceremonial items may include such items as masks, pipes, carved and painted idols, war shields, medicine bundles, prayer sticks, and altar bowls.

Willard Boyd, president of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, argued at the hearings that museums have a fiduciary responsibility to preserve ceremonial objects for the education of the American public.

``I don't think we should view this debate as only one between native Americans on the one hand and insensitive faceless museums on the other,'' Dr. Boyd told the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs in May. ``Because what is involved here is the enlightenment and understanding of millions of Americans who come each year to museums to be educated and learn about each other.''

Not all museum officials agree. Bruce Bernstein, chief curator at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, says that his museum has its own policy to solicit and honor requests from tribes. Santa Fe is surrounded by ancient Indian pueblos and communities and he says that the city's museum is ``especially sensitive to their needs.''

``I've learned far more when dealing directly with tribal and religious leaders, and returning those objects they need for ceremonies, than I ever did by just storing and studying those same objects. The museum is not here to hoard materials needed by a living culture,'' Mr. Bernstein says in an interview in his Santa Fe office.

According to Bernstein, no one knows exactly how many ceremonial objects would be subject to repatriation, although nationwide estimates are in the thousands. But, because museums didn't always keep track of how they acquired certain materials, he says it is not always easy to determine an item's provenance - its origin or source.

In the 19th century, tribal leaders were known to offer sacred materials to non-Indian explorers as a token of friendship, but most museum officials and scientists agree that the majority of items were acquired illegally.

Until tribal leaders began making inquiries into museum inventories, curators regularly put them on display or made them available to scientists for research. Although she is sympathetic to Indian needs, Lynn Goldstein, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, warns that if ``sweeping legislation'' is passed, ``important scientific data could be lost forever.

Dr. Goldstein acknowledges, however, that in the past certain museums have been ``very arrogant'' when Indian groups have come to them requesting the return of artifacts or information about these relics. She says the museum people ``have reacted with some fear and they've just refused to deal with anyone. This is wrong.''

What is right, she says, is for repatriation to be ``negotiated on a case-by-case basis.'' Not all tribes want their material back and there are even divisions within tribes as to how to handle repatriations. In these cases, Goldstein says, a museum can't be sure of returning an object to the appropriate person.

SOME museums are looking for alternative solutions to unilateral repatriation. Rick West, a Cheyenne/Arapahoe Indian, is the recently appointed director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian which, is scheduled to open within the next eight years on the Mall in Washington, D.C. He points to cases in which museums and Indian communities have ``struck a compromise.''

``Indeed,'' Mr. West says in a phone interview from Washington, ``I am aware of a few instances in which the tribe actually wanted the museum to retain permanent control of the object so that it could be properly conserved. At those times when the tribe or Indian community needed that object, the object was made available, although it was then returned to the museum.''

In the meantime, Zuni leaders say they have no intention of allowing museums to retain their Ahayu:da. Barton Martza and other tribal members keep a close eye on the shrines. They say a commercial market for the sculptures still exists. Mac Grimmer, president of Santa Fe's Morning Star Gallery, adds that he could have gotten ``$5,000 to $10,000 apiece'' for a few back in 1987. But the gallery returned those war gods to the tribe, and Mr. Grimmer says the gallery will no longer buy or sell them.

Zuni respect for and fear of what they call the war gods' ``powers'' are such that after this non-Zuni was permitted a rare visit to the shrine, Martza returned that evening to make a special offering. Martza, Edmund Ladd, and other tribal members say the Zuni's cultural and spiritual survival depends on them.

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