Nearly 20 years ago, Andrea Carmen, a member of the Yaqui Nation, an indigenous group in Mexico and the United States, was at an event commemorating International Indigenous Peoples Day at a museum in Stockholm. She was then invited to view the museum’s collection of items from the Americas.
What she saw failed her: a Maaso Kova, a ceremonial deer head dedicated to the Yaqui nation.
“I couldn’t believe what I saw,” Carmen said of her discovery at the Museum of Ethnography. 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, the Maaso Kova is a sacred item used in ceremonial dances to connect the physical world with the spiritual world. of their ancestors.
After Carmen returned to Arizona, she asked a Yaqui chieftain to petition the museum to return the deer’s head and any other Yaqui items it owned. It took the museum 11 years to provide an official answer and another eight years for the artifacts to be returned.
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 head, along with 23 other items, to the Yaqui Nation.
The artifacts, stored in two metal containers, have been shipped to Mexico City, where the Mexican government will hand them over to the Yaqui Nation.
“We are so happy to receive our Maaso Kova, for us a living being that has been locked up for a long time,” Juan Gregorio Jaime León, a Yaqui member in Mexico, said in an interview. (Photographing the head of the sacred deer or displaying an image of the artifact is considered inappropriate by the Yaqui Nation.)
The return of the Maaso Kova is the first successful repatriation of cultural artifacts to an indigenous group overseen by the United Nations under their Declaration of Indigenous Rights, according to Kristen Carpenter, a former UN official involved in the negotiations.
Without UN pressure on Sweden, the Yaqui would almost certainly not have been able to recover their artifacts, said Carmen, executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council, a non-governmental organization focused on indigenous sovereignty.
In recent years, conversations about racism and the legacy of colonialism have increased around the world, and in museums and other cultural centers, discussions about the repatriation of cultural objects stolen, forcibly stolen or removed without the consent of their owners, intensified.
A major challenge in repatriation is the question of provenance: how a museum came into possession of an artefact.
But the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights, ratified in 2007 and which Sweden agreed to follow, states that indigenous peoples have “the right to use and control their ceremonial objects”, and gave the Yaqui the opportunity to assert their claim. to defend, regardless of how the objects were obtained.
“The fact that indigenous peoples have their sacred artifacts and human remains in universities and museums and private auction houses around the world speaks to a mindset that is still heavily based on the doctrine of discovery† said Carmen. “We’re changing that worldview.”
Another impediment to the repatriation of Indigenous goods is that countries often fail to recognize Indigenous groups as legitimate governments, Carmen said.
Swedish law requires repatriation negotiations for state assets between countries. The Yaqui Nation was able to negotiate with Sweden through the United Nations and then obtained permission from Mexico to represent the group in the final agreement.
The Museum of Ethnography is one of four cultural centers that make up the National Museums of World Culture, which are managed by the Swedish government. For years, the museum maintained that it had no reason to return the Yaqui items since they were given as gifts, said Adriana Muñoz, the curator of the museum’s Americas collections.
But after the United Nations intervened in 2014 and launched its own repatriation investigation, the museum produced a report to determine how the deer’s head and the other items made their way to the institution, Muñoz said.
Some of the artifacts came from two Danish anthropologists who had researched in the 1930s in Tlaxcala, Mexico, east of Mexico City, and who had received the artifacts from a military officer from Mexico at the end of a long-running war over land rights. Yaqui. and the Yaqui people, according to Muñoz.
The anthropologists had helped the Yaqui after the war and befriended the army officer, General José Andrés Amarillas Valenzuela, she said.
The rest of the items, including the deer head, were purchased by a group of Swedish explorers working with the museum and invited by the anthropologists to come to Tlaxcala to watch the Yaqui perform a ceremonial deer dance, Muñoz said.
After completing the assessment, the museum told the Yaqui Nation in a letter that it would not return the items because their provenance was “permitted.”
But the Yaqui Nation had a different version of history. They said that Amarillas actually fought for the Mexican army and helped supervise Yaquis in Tlaxcala, who had been taken as prisoners of war and sent to mines to work. Although he was a Yaqui, he is considered a “traitor,” Carmen said.
“This case illustrates that there is a huge gap in understanding between the parties participating in these types of claims,” said Carpenter, the former UN official.
Though the two sides disagreed about the items’ origins, Carmen said they both coalesced around the main reason they had to be returned: their religious value.
She and Carpenter are urging UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, to create a database of indigenous artifacts in museums and universities to make it easier for groups to locate items.
They also want the agency to institute certification requiring indigenous permission to transport an item to prevent auction houses from buying and selling items that can be repatriated, and to designate a UN body as an official facilitator of future repatriations.
“We are calling for a new relationship,” said Carmen, “that will allow us to leave the injustices and damage of the past behind and heal the wounds to engage in cultural exchanges based on a true appreciation of the rights of indigenous peoples. .†