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
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