The Complicated Issue of Indigenous Artifact Ownership

On Sept. 17, Mexico made international headlines by protesting the sale of 120 pre-Colombian artifacts to be auctioned in France. The Mexican Foreign Ministry called the sale “illegal” and claimed that some of the artifacts may have been stolen, illegally trafficked, or fabricated. The French auction house, Millon, denied any illegality and continued with the sale the next day. Millon president Alexandre Millon argued that the sale was “an appreciation of ancient cultures that reflects positively on Mexico.” Bernardo Aguilar, General Manager for Europe of Mexico's Foreign Ministry, had a different point of view. He argued that the artifacts were being reduced to “mere decorations,” which undermined the integrity of the culture it came from. This dispute is only the latest in a long line of ownership controversies surrounding the collection and sale of priceless indigenous artifacts. The legality of these disputes has raised an interesting question: who really owns material culture?

Culture itself, perhaps more obviously, should belong to the people who created it and/or their descendants. On this basis, artifacts and other aspects of material culture would rightfully belong to the remaining members of indigenous cultures. After all, many of these cultures have endured in small but active societies. This includes the Mayans, whose own ancient relics were sold in the French auction. For these people, the artifacts are more than just decoration. They are living connections to their cultural ancestry, surviving after generations of erasure and colonization. In total, the auction brought in $1.3 million. The fact that collectors make generous profits by appropriating and selling the culture of marginalized communities just adds insult to injury. 

Certain items require more cultural sensitivity than others— most notably, the burial artifacts and bodily remains of indigenous people. These collections often start with illegal grave robbing. In recent years, indigenous rights organizations have campaigned to museums across the nation to return these artifacts— and in many cases, they have won. In 2010, the Smithsonian returned the skeletons of more than 60 aboriginal people in Arnhem Land, Australia. Once home, the tribal elders conducted a traditional burial ceremony to lay the spirits to rest. These are important steps in the reparations for native people.

In America, there is legislation regarding the rights of indigenous descendants. This is known as The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA for short. Enacted in 1990, this provided a process for the return of or repatriation of Native American cultural objects— but this is not the case worldwide, nor is it enforceable in other countries. 

Additionally, there are some arguments against the return of artifacts, especially if the artifacts appear to be purely artistic expressions. After all, it’s not like you can copyright a culture. Some will argue that academia will suffer after the removal of indigenous artifacts. Don’t these artifacts deserve to be studied, documented, and valued in academic circles? Wouldn’t the absence of these artifacts only continue the erasure of indigenous cultures? Another argument against the return of these artifacts is preservation. Many collectors claim they provide the best care and protection of these items. 

So, is there a middle ground? Back in 2010, Yale University set a pretty good example. For almost 100 years, Yale held thousands of priceless artifacts (including jewelry, ceramics, tools, and bones) excavated from Machu Picchu, Peru. After a bitter custody battle led by Peruvian president Alan Garcia, the university conceded to return the artifacts to the country. But instead of turning the artifacts over to the government, they are held at the University of Cuzco in the former capital of Peru. By moving the artifacts back to Peru, they can be displayed within their proper cultural context, where the descendants of the Inca people can enjoy and appreciate their vibrant heritage. By keeping them in a university, they can still be studied and preserved.

Whether this could’ve been applied to the Mexico vs. France dispute is unlikely. Donating the pieces, whether to the Mexican government or to local universities, wouldn’t have made much sense for the private collector. For the future, raising awareness about this issue is crucial. Others who have amassed large collections of indigenous artifacts may be more likely to donate them to indigenous activist groups if they hear more about the issue. We should all begin by elevating indigenous voices and supporting their grassroots organizations.