Each of the tribal representatives spoke directly to the audience, and with great eloquence, answering a series of questions posed by Brian Vallo. Questions ranged from, “What is your tribe doing to address the continuous removal of material culture and specifically sacred and ceremonial objects?” to “Why did they leave in the first place?” to “Who is the expert? Collectors and museums or the tribes?” and to the tribes’ reasoning for supporting the STOP Act.
Each of the panelists said that there was collective responsibility for the removal of objects from tribal hands. The panelists also talked about how tribes, dealers, and collectors all needed to change their perceptions of the problem and alter their actions in order to make sure that items no longer left the tribal community.
Sam Tenakhongva explained that he came to the panel from First Mesa. He provides leadership and advice for the village of Walpi on religious matters. Mr. Tenakhongva explained that he was a schoolteacher, teaching standard curricula and also inculcating an understanding of proper social relationships and behavior to the children of Hopi. His examples from the school were much appreciated as bearing also on the larger issues of relationships between different cultures. He noted that for the Hopi, addressing the continuous removal of material culture was the biggest question they were facing as a tribe.
Mr. Tenakhongva said that he was aware of who in the tribe was responsible for removing items. He also said that he personally felt responsible for items leaving, because he was responsible for educating members of the tribe so they cared properly for the items. Sacred items had left tribal control through three main avenues – removed by individuals within the tribe who knew they were doing wrong but had lost their way, often through use of drugs and alcohol, by collectors who contacted tribal members directly and pressured them to sell, and through contacts with museums that had taken place over the last 100 to 150 years, as researchers and collectors from museums were sent to collect items from all the tribal cultural and religious societies.
Mr. Tenakhongva said that there were not written rules governing the responsibility for artifacts, but there was an unwritten understanding that certain individuals have rights and responsibilities for being a caretaker of both privileged information and scared objects. This caretaker role did not give the individuals or families the right to sell objects; the ownership of these objects still rested with the tribal community. Not all individuals honor or understand those responsibilities; he had gone to France to try to make the Hopi position clear to the French courts, but the courts had objected that there was no written law establishing ownership. Therefore, two years ago, he had asked the Hopi tribal council to start putting some of the information about these objects into legal language in a way that didn’t infringe on the privileged and secret nature of information about the scared objects. He felt that the STOP Act would encourage people to understand that they should not be taking such objects: items of high cultural value are communal property; everyone has responsibility for such objects. He understood that auction houses are contractually obligated to their consignors not to reveal information, but hoped that the auctions would work with the Hopi to try and secure returns.
He noted that an object’s collection history is important: an object returned from a museum may have been treated with toxic chemicals, which is potentially a danger to anyone handling it. An object that is returned by an individual collector is less likely to have been treated, but this is important information for the tribe to know. Mr. Tenakhonva also said that when an item is returned, the tribe is often able to identify the person or family from which it came, and therefore better able to address the causes for which it left, and to keep a watchful eye over the persons who have responsibility for the object.
Mr. Tenakhongva said that since the publicity that took place with the Paris auction sales, there have been a number of items returned voluntarily, sometimes with items showing up at the tribal offices, as people holding them have become more aware. The next step Hopi will need to work on is how best to deal with voluntary returns. He stressed that it was impossible for a Hopi tribal member like himself to ever put a valuation on returned items [for donation] but that there were pathways to explore to resolve those kinds of documentation issues to further returns.
Arlen Quetawki of Zuni Pueblo said that he has worked for years as a tribal officer, particularly in dealing with police issues involving abuse of women. He has also been a tribal governor, and has been a religious leader and caretaker for his kiva for 41 years. He said that one reason for the continuing problems of the tribes in locating objects that have left the community is the lack of communication between the tribes and art dealers. He suggested that there be meetings [like the symposium] both nationally and internationally so that people outside the tribes would better understand both the practical factors involved and the less-understood consequences for persons who had sacred objects who were not supposed to possess them. These unintended consequences could include drawing harm to themselves, their families, and the world in general. He noted that there were more than 500 tribes and that there will not be understanding unless there are real conversations between collectors and dealers and all of the tribes.
Mr. Quetawki described his personal experience with desecration of archaeological sites and actions disturbing human remains. He noted the impact of drugs and substance abuse in relation to items leaving the tribe; despite the remoteness of Zuni, he said there are serious problems with drugs and alcohol.
He told the audience that tribal individuals “know the consequences but someone is encouraging them to sell.” He said that in 2013, the Zuni council had taken the unprecedented step of amending their constitution to restrict the sale of any religious or ceremonial item by any tribal members. The Zuni voted for that amendment. This non-traditional approach was needed in order to emphasize the seriousness of removing such items, noting that under US law, the traditional Zuni punishments for violating the trust of the community by removing sacred objects were so severe that they would not be lawful. He strongly urged working together with collectors and art dealers in order to create a win-win situation.
Tim Begay, who is the chief Cultural Preservation Officer for the Navajo Nation, said every community is faced with the loss of artifacts and religious items. He talked about growing up with numerous members of his family being singers and healers, and being familiar with what items were actually used for ceremonial. He said that only those people involved in religious activities would truly know and understand the items used, but he recognized that a collaboration with people outside the tribe was needed to bring them back.
Asked how items left the community, he noted the vast land base of the Navajo Nation, and pointed to a network of collectors who were fed information by tribal members about who’s who in the tribe, what objects they have, and when to approach them to sell. People know who the medicine men are, and what ceremonies take place. He said that sharing this information was a reason for religious items leaving the Navajo nation, for example, when a medicine man passes away. Families are torn and do not know what to do with items, especially when there is no one following the path of that Medicine Man, or when the family members are on the ‘substance abuse path.’
The entire panel discussed in general terms the ceremonial, communal and healing significance of sacred items. Tim Begay perhaps best summed up the tribes’ relationship with ceremonial objects by saying; “These objects are given life when they are made because those objects are to heal people, to keep community… For native people these objects give us hope and that hope extends from the past to the present to the future because these objects are the identity of who we are and how we exist on mother earth.” Others on the panel also emphasized the role that the return of ceremonial objects plays in the healing of community.