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 the war gods in 1978. The tribe’s first success came the next year, when the Denver Art Museum repatriated two of the figures, agreeing that the carvings were sacred and communally owned and could not have been legally obtained. But it was not until after the 1990 passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)—a federal law that established a process for the return of indigenous cultural items—that the Zuni were able to reclaim war gods from every publicly funded museum in the United States.

Within former colonial settler nations such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States, the repatriation of indigenous objects has become increasingly common. Elsewhere, however, repatriation is rare. Because most museums around the world lack a consistent process to evaluate demands and because governments have few tools to help their citizens recover stolen items, the claims of indigenous groups are often frustrated. That is especially the case when it comes to repatriation claims made internationally. There are likely thousands of Native American sacred objects in European collections, among which are seven Zuni war gods in collections in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. (In 2014, I started working with Octavius Seowtewa, a Zuni religious leader and the head of the tribe’s Cultural Resource Advisory Team, to repatriate those figures.)

The ability of indigenous people to reclaim cultural property shouldn’t depend on borders. Museum administrators and indigenous representatives around the world should work together to establish processes for making international repatriation claims, and governments should do more to block the international trade in stolen items.

Zuni Pueblo in the late nineteenth century.


In the United States, the campaign for the repatriation of indigenous objects began in the 1960s, on the heels of the country’s civil rights movement. Native Americans and their supporters argued that sacred objects held in museums were essential to their religious and cultural practices and that it was a sacrilege to unearth graves for scientific study and museological display. As Native American activists interrupted archaeological digs and protested at museums, curators, scientists, and scholars countered that repatriations would not elevate Native American rights but obscure humanity’s common heritage.

By passing NAGPRA in 1990, the United States established a process for Native Americans to claim ancestral human remains, funerary and sacred objects, and other objects of cultural patrimony from U.S. museums and federal agencies. The law requires museums to inventory their collections, send those lists to tribes, and return items when indigenous representatives can demonstrate their cultural ties to them. So far, the law has facilitated the return of approximately 14,000 sacred and communally owned objects, 50,000 sets of human remains, and 1.4 million funerary objects from U.S. museums and federal agencies to tribes and their descendants.

Other former colonial settler nations with large indigenous populations have enacted repatriation policies of their own. In Australia, the 1984 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act laid the groundwork for the protection of traditional aboriginal areas and the return of culturally significant objects. In 2011, Canberra published the Australian Government Policy on Indigenous Repatriation, which advocates for repatriation in order “to right the wrongs of the past, and to build positive relationships between the collecting institutions and Indigenous communities.” New Zealand’s Protected Objects Act of 1975 provides for the return of unlawfully exported cultural items and empowers the Maori Land Court to determine who has custody of human remains or objects from Maori burial sites; the country’s national museum created a formal repatriation program in 2003. And although Canada has not passed any similar legislation, since the early 1990s, the country’s museum and archaeological associations have worked with indigenous representatives to establish guidelines for repatriation—an effort that has led to the restoration of hundreds of objects to indigenous communities.

The ability of indigenous people to reclaim cultural property shouldn’t depend on borders.

Despite these countries’ domestic successes, only a handful of international repatriations have been completed. American tribes make few requests of foreign museums because they can’t easily access their inventories and because native representatives often lack the resources to travel abroad to meet with museum administrators. Even when tribal authorities locate objects that they would like to reclaim overseas, few museums have clear processes that would allow them to do so. What is more, because so many museums are run by governments, decisions about repatriation are often left to officials rather than to more sympathetic museum administrators. No country has established clear legal processes for the international repatriation of indigenous cultural property. These are a few of the reasons why only a handful of European institutions—such as the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm and the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom—have repatriated objects to tribes in North America. (Indigenous groups in countries such as Australia, Botswana, Namibia, New Zealand, and South Africa have successfully secured the return of human remains from several foreign museums.)

Making matters worse, indigenous groups cannot look to international treaties for help. The Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, adopted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1970 and accepted or ratified by 131 countries, is the most prominent international agreement that could facilitate repatriations. But because each state chooses how it implements the convention for itself, its effectiveness has been spotty. Whereas countries such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand bar the import of cultural objects that have been illegally exported from their countries of origin, for example, France and Japan have not meaningfully implemented the convention’s provisions at all. The 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects sought to address some of these gaps by requiring buyers to prove the legality of their acquisitions—but only 38 countries are parties to it, and few of them are major markets for indigenous objects. Even the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which calls on states “to enable the access and/or repatriation of ceremonial objects and human remains in their possession,” has proved ineffective. In recent years, France, which voted in favor of the declaration, has failed to return Native American ceremonial objects sold at auction.

Members of the Haisla Nation looking at a totem pole in a museum in Vancouver, Canada, April 2006.
Andy Clark / REUTERS


It might seem that the best way to address these problems would be for states to agree to a comprehensive international convention dealing with contested objects and human remains held by museums. But such a treaty is unlikely to be achieved, since few governments care much about the issue of repatriation. What’s more, international treaties do not usually apply retroactively—and that poses a problem, since collectors acquired most of the contested objects and remains they now hold in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The real solutions lie with national governments, museum administrators, and indigenous groups. Some tribes and organizations in the United States have already held conferences and published guides to inform native communities about the repatriation process. For such conversations to be effective, they should grow to incorporate museum administrators from around the world. In the years before the passage of NAGPRA, the Panel for a National Dialogue on Museum/Native American Relations proved essential in finding common ground on the issue of repatriation within the United States. Museum administrators and indigenous representatives should establish a similar forum at the international level, aimed at improving mutual understanding and developing processes for indigenous people and museums to make and evaluate claims. Such initiatives can create change: faced in recent years with public outcry and demands from the descendants of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, the United Kingdom, for example, has allowed for the restitution of artwork stolen during World War II.

Next, governments should work to stem the international trade in illicit antiquities and cultural property by strengthening their implementation of the 1970 UNESCO convention. New Zealand’s Protected Objects Act offers one model for doing so. The act created a register of objects barred from export, requires exporters to get official permits to send certain kinds of materials abroad, prohibits the import of illicit objects, and provides a process for returning stolen items. In the United States, the proposed Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act would increase penalties for the trafficking of stolen cultural objects, prohibit the export of certain goods, and create a working group for tribal and federal authorities to better cooperate—measures that would strengthen control over the trade of indigenous items. Other countries should pass similar laws.

The alternative is for indigenous groups to continue to suffer quietly from the loss of their cultural items. I learned this in 2014, when I accompanied Seowtewa to Europe, where he sought to reclaim war gods held in a number of museums across the continent. At each museum, Seowtewa would explain to administrators the significance of the ahayuda—why they were needed in New Mexico, why they should not be considered pieces of art or anthropological specimens, and why their communal ownership meant that no collection could rightfully possess them. Most of the  administrators Seowtewa met were sympathetic but unable to help. He returned to the United States empty-handed.

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