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Feds ‘Paying a Lot of Attention’ to International Repatriations; Is It Enough?

Discussions about if new laws are needed to strengthen the likes of NAGPRA were held at the recent AAIA International Repatriation Project conference.
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Continual monitoring of digital art databases, public appeals and education in the U.S. and abroad about Native culture, and help from the federal government invoking the trust responsibility are methods helping tribes with repatriation efforts overseas, say panelists attending an internal repatriation conference.

“Indian country should feel very proud and very good about this. The federal government is paying a lot of attention,” said Greg Smith, a Washington attorney representing Acoma Pueblo on congressional international repatriation legislation. The New Mexico Pueblo made an appeal to French officials to stop the sale of a shield used in religious ceremonies that was slated for a Paris auction in May.

“But the area is so sensitive for all parties that it’s really important to approach it from that psychological aspect,” Smith said. “It’s psychological ball. It’s approaching it from that humility, that humility that comes from the items themselves and the connections to the tribes.”

Smith, speaking during the Association on American Indian Affairs’ (AAIA) second International Repatriation Project conference September 26-27 at the Isleta Resort and Casino in New Mexico, said the world responded to Acoma’s public appeal made during a press conference on the day of the sale. French officials pulled the item believing it was stolen.

Congressional House and Senate members in recent months have introduced resolutions and bills with bipartisan support that would condemn or prohibit the export of indigenous cultural remains and objects. The Tribes to Stop the Export of Cultural and Traditional (PROTECT) Patrimony Resolution calls upon the departments of Commerce, Homeland Security, Interior and State and U.S. Attorney General to take affirmative action to stop illegal practices and secure repatriation items to tribes. The Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony or STOP Act would ask the Government Accountability Office for a report on illegally trafficked objects and create a tribal working group for implementing the report’s recommendations.

About one to two million cultural items and human remains are abroad, according to AAIA. England, France and Germany have the largest collections of Native human remains, funerary objects and sacred items. Many of the items were taken by trading companies, missionaries, scientists studying race, archaeologists or during international museum exchanges.

Looting on tribal and federal lands also continues to be a problem with items hitting the black market in the U.S. and abroad, leaving AAIA’s International Repatriation Project Director Honor Keeler posing the question whether new laws are needed to replace or strengthen those like the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in part designed to aid tribes with protection of sacred items in the U.S.

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The Internet has made it easier for tribes like Acoma to monitor auction house or art gallery databases for the sale of items. In the past, New Mexico and Arizona tribes had turned to a BIA agent in Albuquerque to help with investigations but the position has since been eliminated. Others, such as Navajo, have flown to the EVE Auction House in Paris to purchase items and spent six-figures for 24 Yeibichai masks. Still others like the Chippewa Cree Tribe in Montana are getting started in the process after learning about tribal members who fought in World War II were buried in abroad.

While Congress has stepped up efforts for support, many tribes cite lack of funding or other resources, language barriers, complex foreign laws, and misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what the items mean to Native people as barriers to the repatriation process.

“For the people in Paris, for a lot of collectors, they see it as art. They see it plainly as art,” Acoma Tribal Secretary Jonathan Sims said. “A lot of our people see these items as living objects. It has a spirit and there is a particular use for them.”

For those who have been successful, it’s taken years for the return of items. A ghost dance shirt presented to Glasgow when the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show visited the city in Scotland was repatriated in 1999 after four years of negotiations.

To help tribes, AAIA’s International Repatriation Project has created a database and assists in the international repatriation process with its global network. AAIA also recommends that tribes pass their own repatriation laws, as well as partner with other tribes in the process.

Others, including members of an antique and art dealers association, say they want to correct past wrongs of sales of sacred items.

“We want to understand better what’s important to you,” said the association member to conference attendees. “We were responsible for a lot of that. We want you to know that we want to be partners in the whole process.”