Nearly 20 years ago, Andrea Carmen, a representative of the Yaqui people, an indigenous group in Mexico and the United States, was at an International Day of Indigenous Peoples event at the Stockholm Museum. After that, she was invited to view the museum’s collection of objects from America.
What she noticed made her stop: Maaso Kova, a ceremonial deer head sacred to the Yaqui people.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Ms. Carmen said of her find at the Museum of Ethnography. She added that it was “like seeing a baby in a cage.”
For the Yaqui people, whose members live in the state of Sonora in northern Mexico and parts of southern Arizona, the 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 the Yaqui chief to approach the museum to return the deer head and any other Yaqui items he owned. It took the museum 11 years to give an official response and another eight years for the artifacts to be returned.
This month, representatives and officials from the museum, the governments of Sweden and Mexico and the United Nations met in Sweden to formally authorize the transfer of the deer head, along with 23 other items, back to the Yaqui people.
The artifacts, stored in two metal containers, were sent to Mexico City, where the Mexican government will give them to the Yaqui people.
“We are so happy to receive our Maaso Cova, which for us is a living being that has been locked up for a long time,” Juan Gregorio Jaime Leon, a Yaqui member from Mexico, said in an interview. (Photographing the head of a sacred deer or displaying an image of an artifact is considered unacceptable by the Yaqui people.)
The return of Maaso Kova marks the first successful repatriation of cultural artifacts to an indigenous group under the supervision of the United Nations under her leadership. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoplesaccording to Kristen Carpenter, a former UN official who took part in the talks.
Without UN pressure on Sweden, the Yaquis would almost certainly not be able to recover their artifacts, said Ms Carmen, executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council, an NGO working on indigenous sovereignty issues.
In recent years, as talk of racism and the legacy of colonialism has intensified around the world, discussions have intensified in museums and other cultural centers about the repatriation of cultural property that has been stolen, taken under duress or removed without the consent of their owners.
A serious problem with repatriation is the question of origin – how the museum came into possession of the artifact.
But the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was ratified in 2007 and which Sweden has agreed to follow, states that indigenous peoples have “the right to use and control their ceremonial objects” and gives the Yaqui the ability to defend their rights. regardless of how the objects were obtained.
“The fact that indigenous peoples have their sacred objects and human remains in universities, museums and private auction houses around the world speaks to a mindset that is still largely based on the doctrine of discovery.” Miss Carmen said. “We are changing that mindset.”
According to Ms. Carmen, another barrier to the repatriation of Indigenous items is that countries often do not recognize Indigenous groups as legitimate governments.
Swedish law requires that any negotiations for the repatriation of public items be between countries. The Yaqui Nation was able to negotiate with Sweden through the United Nations and then secured the agreement of Mexico 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, administered by the Swedish government. For years, the museum has argued that it has no reason to return the yaqui pieces as they were donated, according to Adriana Muñoz, the museum’s curator of collections in America.
But after the United Nations intervened in 2014 and conducted its own investigation into the repatriation, the museum prepared a report to determine how the deer head and other items got into the facility, Ms Muñoz said.
Some of the items came from two Danish anthropologists who were doing research in Tlaxcala, Mexico, east of Mexico City, in the 1930s, and received artifacts from a Yaqui military officer at the end of Mexico’s long land rights war. and the Yaqui people, according to Ms. Muñoz.
According to her, anthropologists helped the Yaquis after the war and became friends with military general José Andrés Amarillas Valenzuela.
The rest of the exhibits, including the deer head, were bought by a group of Swedish researchers who worked with the museum and were invited by anthropologists to Tlaxcala to watch yaks perform a ceremonial deer dance, Ms Munoz said.
After the review was completed, the museum informed the Yaqui people in a letter that it would not be returning the items as their provenance had been “authorized”.
But the Yaqui people had a different version of the story. They said that General Amarilla actually fought for the Mexican army and helped control the Yaquis in Tlaxcala, who were taken prisoner and sent to work in the mines. Although he was a Yaqui, he is considered a “traitor,” Ms. Carmen said.
“This case shows that there is a huge gap in understanding between the parties bringing these types of claims,” said Ms. Carpenter, a former UN official.
While the two sides disagreed on the origins of the items, Ms Carmen said they were united around the main reason they should be returned: their religious value.
Ms. Muñoz, with the help of activists and anthropologists working at the National Institute of Anthropology in Hermosillo, Mexico, did her own research and recommended the return of the items, explaining that the review “opened my eyes to the significance of these items. ”
Following the return of the Yaqui artifacts, tribes from Canada, Panama and the Caribbean turned to Ms. Carmen for help in their own repatriation efforts, including for some items also in the National Museum of World Culture.
Ms. Carmen hopes that the Yaqui return process can be applied to other Indigenous repatriation campaigns.
She and Ms. Carpenter are pushing for UNESCO, the UN cultural agency, to create a database of indigenous artifacts in museums and universities to make it easier for groups to find items.
They also want the agency to establish a certification that would require the consent of indigenous peoples to transport the item, to prevent auction houses from buying and selling items that could be repatriated, and appoint a UN body as the official coordinator for future repatriation.
“We are calling for a new relationship,” said Ms. Carmen, “through which we can leave behind the injustices and harms of the past and heal the wounds so that we can begin to participate in cultural exchanges based on real respect for indigenous peoples. the rights of peoples.”