Objects made by the Hopi and Zuni tribes on display before an auction in Paris, December 2014.
Christian Hartmann / reuters

In the 1870s, anthropologists first arrived at the Native American pueblo of Zuni, in a lush valley in New Mexico, and became captivated by the shrines that its residents had dedicated to figures that they called ahayuda. Known as war gods in English, the wooden figures have heavy brows, deep-set eyes, sharp noses and chins, and protruding umbilical cords. Zuni priests would carry out elaborate ceremonies to create the gods, breathing life into them and asking them to protect the Zuni homeland and keep the universe in balance.

As the war gods became objects of fascination among anthropologists and connoisseurs of modern art in the decades that followed, they began to vanish from the pueblo and reappear in museums and private collections in North America and Europe. More than 100 of the figures were stolen over the years. Some shrines were emptied completely.

The Zuni started campaigning for museums to return

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