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The Sacred and the Profane, under one roof! (But not for the first time)
April 12, 2013 5:31 PM   Subscribe

A French auction house has gone ahead with a planned sale of Hopi katsinam. Such a sale would have been illegal in the United States. A depiction of the Crow mother sold for more than $200,000.

Although the United States is bound by treaty to seek out the return of illegally-acquired artworks found in the United States (see, e.g.: US v. 10th Century Cambodian Sandstone Sculpture), countries like France are not bound by similar agreements with respect to sacred art originating from the United States.
posted by anewnadir (233 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
I have to preemptively apologize for labeling the Crow Mother katsinam a "depiction" in a poor attempt at balance and objectivity; I felt that other words like "object" seemed to belittle the significance of the visage, so I settled for something more apparently flawed.

Since I'm entitled to a little more editorial leeway as a commenter, I'd just like to add a quote from the auctioneer--I think it does more to convey the tragic quality of today's auction than any kind of griping or editorializing I could conceive of:
Before starting, the auctioneer, Gilles Néret-Minet, told the crowd that the sale had been found by a judge to be perfectly legal, and that the masks were no longer sacred but had become “important works of art.” He added, “In France you cannot just up and seize the property of a person that is lawfully his.”
Such a shame.
posted by anewnadir at 5:36 PM on April 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Auctioneer Gilles Neret-Minet pressed on. He likened one mask to a clown’s face, and said the eyes of another resembled the diamond-shaped logo of French car maker Renault. He jokingly told guests the sale “is the deal of the day.”

“I must remind people that these masks are for personal use only. If they are shown in public, they will be confiscated by the Indians, you know, they are here,” he said with a smile.
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 5:39 PM on April 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Sometimes it's worth remembering that the French invented fencing.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:41 PM on April 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


I don't get it. Why should we be concerned about this? Really. I'm trying to see why my indifference here is morally problematic on any level. I can go buy a eucharist and nobody cares. What's the difference?
posted by dis_integration at 5:42 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't get it. Why should we be concerned about this? Really. I'm trying to see why my indifference here is morally problematic on any level. I can go buy a eucharist and nobody cares. What's the difference?

Can you go and buy Nazi plunder?
posted by Sys Rq at 5:43 PM on April 12, 2013 [24 favorites]


I don't get it. Why should we be concerned about this? Really. I'm trying to see why my indifference here is morally problematic on any level. I can go buy a eucharist and nobody cares. What's the difference?

How would you feel about an auction of your stolen family heirlooms? Especially if the thieves were already rich and you were poor?
posted by maxwelton at 5:47 PM on April 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


“In France you cannot just up and seize the property of a person that is lawfully his.”

But, apparently, if you are French and they aren't, you can, as long as you go there and steal it.

Here's the deal: the masks mean nothing to me. But to those folks they embody some sacred thing that's a bit beyond my ken. However, the items were stolen from, not sold by, those to whom they belonged. I don't know what's so hard to understand about that.
posted by mule98J at 5:48 PM on April 12, 2013 [19 favorites]


Just based on the article and not any legal knowledge, it does sound like the law was with them. Sometimes utterly despicable acts by despicable people are legal. I would encourage France to consider this one of those times where it may be worth revisiting the law rather than shrugging it off.

I can go buy a eucharist and nobody cares.

We can make more of them super easy, they are meant to be consumable. You would have a tougher time stealing the Shroud of Turin and selling it without disapproval.
posted by Drinky Die at 5:48 PM on April 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


I don't get it. Why should we be concerned about this? Really. I'm trying to see why my indifference here is morally problematic on any level. I can go buy a eucharist and nobody cares. What's the difference?

Wait, you say you can legally, buy a eucharist consecrated by the Catholic Church and held to be sacred? Where do you find to buy such a thing?
posted by Anitanola at 5:49 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


These arguments are silly. If we traced the history of property and weighed it all on the scales of justice, everyone of us would have to be condemned. And yes, I don't see why one person's religious beliefs should matter here. What isn't stolen? What isn't profane anymore? We are very late in this here life, we fallen beings. Perhaps I should return my clothing to the semi-enslaved cambodians who made it.
posted by dis_integration at 5:50 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


We can make more of them super easy, they are meant to be consumable.

But they are not meant to be sold, and are certainly not to be consumed by those not in full communion with the Church. Even Ebay changed course on this.
posted by jquinby at 5:51 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anitanola: they exist in private collections, certainly. Religious artifacts are auctioned all the time. This is one among others.
posted by dis_integration at 5:51 PM on April 12, 2013


Look, if somebody wants one I can hook you up, that's all I'm saying. The Church won't get too bent out of shape. Bless bless, mumble mumble, we have more.
posted by Drinky Die at 5:52 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Look, if somebody wants one I can hook you up, that's all I'm saying. The Church won't get too bent out of shape. Bless bless, mumble mumble, we have more.

This is simply not true. I won't derail this any further, but mistreatment of the Eucharist is considered gravely sinful by the Church.
posted by jquinby at 5:54 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Deconsecrated objects and buildings are even sold by the church but I wonder about a public sale of a consecrated host. That seems a more apt comparison here with the Hopi mask. Not everything Native Americans produce are sacred objects but they are saying this is. I know items from other cultures are auctioned all the time but when there is a legitimate claim of this sort, it seems a bit unethical to proceed simply because we don't know anything about Hopi culture and view their 'sacred' objects as mere objects.

Please don't stomp on me here; I just think we should allow for other peoples beliefs. I don't think the marketability is the only criterion for auctioneers.
posted by Anitanola at 5:58 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]



This is simply not true. I won't derail this any further, but mistreatment of the Eucharist is considered gravely sinful by the Church.


Joking aside, yeah, but lots of things are. It would be insulting to the Church for someone to display it as artwork, but that is no concern of the legal system. The theft of a culturally and spiritually important work of art from a Church is a much different thing. You would see real outrage if Black Madonna of Częstochowa was stolen and sold beyond the type of "Piss Christ is so insulting!" type of thing.
posted by Drinky Die at 5:59 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


The Associated Press is not transmitting images of the objects because the Hopi have long kept the items out of public view and consider it sacrilegious for any images of the objects to appear.

Oh please. What nonsense.

If you are willing to call out Christians for believing fairy tales you need to extend your convictions to other groups too.
posted by Keith Talent at 6:00 PM on April 12, 2013 [23 favorites]


The religious angle is a bit of a distraction. Fact is, these objects -- regardless of their significance -- were stolen. That should be enough right there.

That they were stolen in a concerted effort to commit cultural genocide is just shit icing on a shit cake.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:00 PM on April 12, 2013 [65 favorites]


What isn't stolen? What isn't profane anymore?

Give me a break. You mean nothing is special to you at all? Nothing? You can't think of a single thing in your life that you regard as important and valuable, that if someone took it away from you would cause you emotional pain?
posted by KokuRyu at 6:01 PM on April 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


I don't think the Hopi tribe is out of line asking that people return their religious items, bones etc. It's not like they are basking in riches by selling them off themselves.

I would certainly be upset if someone "discovered" my Grandma's grave and profited off her bones.
posted by jabo at 6:01 PM on April 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Assholes.
posted by spitbull at 6:02 PM on April 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Oh please. What nonsense.

If you are willing to call out Christians for believing fairy tales you need to extend your convictions to other groups too.
posted by Keith Talent at 6:00 PM on April 12 [+] [!]


There's a difference between believing a religion to be fact, and deciding not to commit further hurtful acts against an oppressed people who have very recently been wronged just because you fucking can.
posted by FirstMateKate at 6:02 PM on April 12, 2013 [42 favorites]


If you are willing to call out Christians for believing fairy tales you need to extend your convictions to other groups too.

No you can not if your culture, Keith Talent, was responsible for the destruction of entire cultures. Not everybody has to eat hot dogs, watch Mad Men, listen to Modest Mouse, and buy an iPad, you know.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:02 PM on April 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


Amazing, the amount of cultural arrogance on display in this thread. Sorry if I did a bad job framing the issue, but it's just so sad to see people equating the Hopi with the Catholic Church.
posted by anewnadir at 6:03 PM on April 12, 2013 [28 favorites]


dis_integration: "These arguments are silly. If we traced the history of property and weighed it all on the scales of justice, everyone of us would have to be condemned.."

What the fuck are you talking about? Are you implying that every Metafilter user has a collection of rare and valuable stolen antiques?
posted by mannequito at 6:03 PM on April 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


From the article that whyareyouatriangle posted:
Monroe Warshaw, an art collector from New York, who bought two masks for around 28,000 euros ($36,500) euros, said he didn’t believe the masks had been stolen from the Hopis and that the person who acquired them should be thanked, not criticized, for preserving them.

“How did they steal them? Did some antique dealer go into their house at night and steal them?” he said, as the auction was still in progress.

He added that he will “probably not” ever give them back to the Hopis as “they didn’t care for them in the first place — now they want them because they have a value.”
I am so happy they printed his name. He should forever be known for this. When people google him, this is what they should see.
posted by Houstonian at 6:05 PM on April 12, 2013 [42 favorites]


Nice post title, by the way.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:05 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sorry if I did a bad job framing the issue, but it's just so sad to see people equating the Hopi with the Catholic Church.

I don't think that's what's happening here at all, for whatever that's worth.
posted by jquinby at 6:07 PM on April 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Amazing, the amount of cultural arrogance on display in this thread.
posted by anewnadir at 6:03 PM on April 12 [+] [!]


I agree, anewnadir. I like the post, and thought you framed it well, but it seems to be spiraling fast. Sad to say, I had to flag it. I can't imagine the discussion is going to improve from here on out.
posted by FirstMateKate at 6:07 PM on April 12, 2013


If the French collectors want to really flaunt it they should pay with Nazi gold.
posted by XMLicious at 6:08 PM on April 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


Not knowing who the seller is, it seems unlikely that anyone knows for sure that they were stolen.
posted by Brocktoon at 6:13 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


There's a bit by the LA Times on the auction as well, with some of the history of the katsinam:

The international rule of thumb for sales of antiquities and other cultural artifacts is a UNESCO convention adopted in November 1970 to discourage looting; auction houses and museums have become reluctant to sell or acquire artifacts when there’s evidence that they left their homelands or native grounds after that date. The Hopi masks sold in Paris dated from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and were believed to have been taken from a northern Arizona reservation in the 1930s and 1940s.
posted by jquinby at 6:13 PM on April 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


The arguments regarding the sacred/religious nature of the masks are irrelevant. The items were stolen from them and they should be returned because we all have laws that respect people's property and possession (including France). When someone has their bike stolen, do they have to make a case for how personally important and significant their bike was before they get it back? No - so why should the Hopi tribe?

I don't know if you guys have ever had something stolen from you, but I have and it sucks. It wasn't a sacred mask or some heirloom, but I still want it back because it was mine! I can imagine it sucks all the more when the stolen item means a lot more than some bike or iPod, so I can sympathize with the Hopi tribe and I hope they do eventually get their things back.
posted by cyml at 6:13 PM on April 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Not knowing who the seller is, it seems unlikely that anyone knows for sure that they were stolen.

And yet, not knowing who the seller is, it seems unlikely that anyone knows for sure that they were not stolen.
posted by ambrosia at 6:14 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I am curious how they were stolen. Where were they? (Yes, Arizona, but very specifically, where?)
Was there a big fuss at the time? I make no comment with these questions, I just hunger for the details of the back story.
posted by cccorlew at 6:20 PM on April 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


And yet, not knowing who the seller is, it seems unlikely that anyone knows for sure that they were not stolen.

Nah... I'm sure they were paid for fair and square, with twenty-four dollars in beads and trinkets.

If you watch enough Fox News you learn about what a tragedy it is that Native Americans aren't allowed to sell off their reservations. They're really good about standing up for oppressed people like that.
posted by XMLicious at 6:21 PM on April 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


If you are willing to call out Christians for believing fairy tales you need to extend your convictions to other groups too.

Yeah, don't you just hate it when a people's beliefs get in the way of my commodifying their possessions I stole!
posted by dougmoon at 6:34 PM on April 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Not knowing who the seller is, it seems unlikely that anyone knows for sure that they were stolen.

OK, that's a fair enough statement. Probably the seller did not steal them. However, it's a good guess that the seller understood what they were when he bought them, and so understood that they were ill-gotten in the beginning.

I notice one of the last sentences in one of the articles mentioned that some were purchased by an organization for the purpose of returning to the Hopi people. That is the right thing to do.
posted by Houstonian at 6:39 PM on April 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Isn't it possible they were sold by the Hopi in the first place? And assuming they were cheated by the wily white man is to assume that the Hopi had an infantile notion of their value, which was certainly not the case 100% of the time. It might even be likely that they were sold to the Navajo, who are right next door. I'm not arguing that the Hopi don't have a case or that it wouldn't be great if these items were returned, but to label the anonymous seller as a thief without any context is not what justice is about.
posted by Brocktoon at 6:49 PM on April 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


While walking this AM and listening to this on NPR I did have the thought that we do seem to selectively choose who to favor when it comes to the sacred and profane--Mohammed on a bomb, Piss Christ, Taliban and Buddha, Mosques and trumpets, banning conspicuous religious symbols in schools (France)and the list gos on and on. I became physically upset and enraged watching videos of the bombing of the Buddhas. Nevertheless, it does seem as if the elevation of religious (and yes, often cultural ) symbols to mythical status does nothing but separate, balkanize and provide a sustained context for righteousness, suffering and revenge. And I do draw a distinction between the the wanton destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan and the commercial sale of religious art. Finally, there is a certain historical accuracy in the notion that almost all races/cultures/ethnic groups/etc. were probably at one time the victim and the victimizer. It usually depends on when you start and stop the clock and who is doing the timing. With some exceptions I think it is best to look with equal skepticism at all the saints and sinners of today and yesterday. Although it is damn hard for me to look skeptically at either the Hopi or Buddhist.
posted by rmhsinc at 6:49 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I am curious how they were stolen. Where were they? (Yes, Arizona, but very specifically, where?)
Was there a big fuss at the time? I make no comment with these questions, I just hunger for the details of the back story.


One of the disconnects here is that ideas of ownership differ from culture to culture. Whoever had the masks originally may not have had the right to sell them.

However, if you don't recognize that there are different cultures and different beliefs and different values, then I guess it probably is all probably meaningless - might makes right, ownership is 9/10's of the law, human history is a linear narrative with acceptance of American (or in this case French) culture the end result for everyone on the planet. But French fries are tasty!
posted by KokuRyu at 6:52 PM on April 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


My family has some stuff that my mother inherited from her grandfather, I think. Nothing like this, just random household furniture and the like. Nobody living knows for sure where he got it. Maybe he stole it. Should we not sell it?

Does anybody allege that some specific person stole these specific objects at some specific time in some specific manner? Does anybody offer any detailed history at all? Do they have any evidence whatsoever beyond "My ancestors (or other old relatives or quasi-relatives) would never have sold this thing and would never have given it away, because they obviously must all have felt about it exactly the way I do, even though I never met them."?

Is there any person who can provide evidence of who does own these objects? I don't mean a meaningless statement claiming title for a non-entity, like "My culture owns them". I mean "My grandfather owned this thing here until it was taken without his permission, and he always talked about how it happened." or "That thing was in XYZ tribal reliquary-or-whatever until somebody grabbed it, and everybody knew that it was stolen, and look, here's the newspaper article"?

Because if not, people need to get over it.
posted by Hizonner at 6:52 PM on April 12, 2013 [13 favorites]


dis_integration, I hope you don't mind me popping over to your mum's house and riffling through family mementos, seeing what I can flog off for some spare dollars. I think my next stop may be the Vatican, I hear they just love people carrying away those little knick knacks to list on ebay, I mean it's not like we all don't just commit some good old cultural plunder now and then eh?

FWIW there is a pretty strong linage of Euro-Americans carting off NA artifacts without re-numeration, I'd say at his point it behooves the sellers to establish authenticity rather than to assume everything is just kosher.
posted by edgeways at 6:54 PM on April 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Isn't it possible they were sold by the Hopi in the first place? And assuming they were cheated by the wily white man is to assume that the Hopi had an infantile notion of their value, which was certainly not the case 100% of the time.

No, it's assuming they were owned by a single person, which they were not.
posted by Houstonian at 6:57 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


While they're in Paris Hopi ought to stroll by Sainte-Chapelle and pick up the odd Holy Sponge to take home as a souvenir.
posted by benito.strauss at 6:58 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Items having been stolen, or not, are not a stand in counter-argument that somehow glosses over the wholesale destruction and terrible treatment of native Americans. Selling these items is a symbolic act that legitimizes a modern culture that shows little regard for owning up to a genocidal pathology towards "nonwhite groups".

An individual item is not the point, even of it was accrued "legally", the laws are wrong and need to be changed to reflect a better understanding of history.
posted by roboton666 at 6:59 PM on April 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


"might makes right, ownership is 9/10's of the law, human history is a linear narrative with acceptance of American (or in this case French) culture the end result for everyone on the planet" Come on, that is a pretty time limited perspective on history and change. That is historical sampling to make a point not any recognition of the temporal nature of current events ( say 2,000-3,000 years or so).
posted by rmhsinc at 6:59 PM on April 12, 2013


The Hopi are perhaps the most insular of Native American tribes. There are only about 18,000 Hopi in the U.S. Mostly they live on the three Mesas of their reservation, itself completely surrounded by the Dine (Navajo) lands. Tourism is limited. There are some Hopi who have 'strayed' from Hopi ways and perhaps at some point such persons stole sold objects of importance to the Hopi to eager or unscrupulous collectors. Buying from one Hopi does not change the fact that they could well be stolen and that the Hopi say they are sacred objects not to be sold.

The first buyer likely didn't check the provenance. That said, it is sometimes very difficult to tell who speaks for a particular tribe or if the tribe even has a spokesperson or leader in the sense we use these terms. But for the most part, the Hopi have been exactly as they are for a very long time and have resisted assimilation by their isolation and determination. If the Hopi say Crow Mother -- or any other item -- is sacred, I have a hard time believing anyone has a right to buy or sell it.

Beyond that, of course, anyone can do anything they are powerful enough to do.
posted by Anitanola at 7:00 PM on April 12, 2013 [17 favorites]


Is there any person who can provide evidence of who does own these objects? I don't mean a meaningless statement claiming title for a non-entity, like "My culture owns them". I mean "My grandfather owned this thing here until they were taken without his permission, and he always talked about how it happened." or "That thing was in XYZ tribal reliquary-or-whatever until somebody grabbed it, and everybody knew that it was stolen, and look, here's the newspaper article"?

Because if not, people need to get over it.


Anthropologists and other scholars who are familiar with sacred tribal artifacts can distinguish between artifacts that were made for sale and artifacts that were not made for sale. Many collections of Native American art and artifacts in museums in the US are comprised partially of arts and crafts that First Nations people made for sale- things like bead work, belt buckles, and similar. Those things are totally fine for museums and private collectors to have. They were made to be sold to people outside of the culture. Many other items were stolen or confiscated during the 19th century push to move Native people from their own lands onto reservations. Those thefts are often documented in letters and pictures describing military actions or removals of Native people.

If the Hopi say they were stolen, they were stolen.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 7:01 PM on April 12, 2013 [34 favorites]


a meaningless statement claiming title for a non-entity, like "My culture owns them".

The problem is your idea of wealth and ownership is entirely capitalistic and disregards all others.
posted by dougmoon at 7:04 PM on April 12, 2013 [21 favorites]


And assuming they were cheated by the wily white man is to assume that the Hopi had an infantile notion of their value, which was certainly not the case 100% of the time.

Keep in mind that we are talking about people who have had cultures and peoples destroyed and have ended up living in a place called a "reservation" that hasn't always been known for having the absolute best living conditions. It is possible selling of cultural artifacts was done by someone in a state of desperation, fully understanding the damage they were doing and the value of the artifacts but not seeing any alternatives.

This is one of the ways the comparison to the Catholic Church falls apart, of course. It's not simple theft from a Church, it was part of a systematic looting of a culture that was being destroyed. It is morally right to return these artifacts, even if you can't prove specific chains of custody along the way. The law is another matter of course.
posted by Drinky Die at 7:04 PM on April 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


An artifact not intended by its maker to be sold can still be sold, given away, or abandoned by somebody else with a reasonable right to do so.

If "those thefts are often documented", then where's the documentation?

And who exactly are "the Hopi"? "The whites" aren't saying anything...
posted by Hizonner at 7:05 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I sometimes forget that Americans worked very hard to kill off all native folks as a matter of national policy, which means there is very little exposure to First Nations culture south of the border, except when Johnny Depp plays Tonto.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:10 PM on April 12, 2013 [16 favorites]


I am curious how they were stolen. Where were they? (Yes, Arizona, but very specifically, where?)
Was there a big fuss at the time? I make no comment with these questions, I just hunger for the details of the back story.


From this article linked to in the blog post in the OP:
The auction house says that a collector who has not been identified legally bought the items in the United States at sales and auctions over 30 years, beginning in the 1930s, and that the coming auction complies with French law.

...

Historians say many Hopi artifacts were taken long ago by people who found them unattended in shrines and on altars along the mesas of the Southwest. Others were confiscated by missionaries who came to convert the tribe in the late 19th century. Some were sold by tribe members. But even those sales were not legitimate, Hopi leaders say, because they may have been made under duress, and because the tribe holds that an individual cannot hold title to its religious artifacts — they are owned communally.
I'm not arguing that the Hopi don't have a case or that it wouldn't be great if these items were returned, but to label the anonymous seller as a thief without any context is not what justice is about.

Yeah, and maybe he or she really is putting on the auction as an homage and honor to Hopi heritage! I mean without any specific details, who's to say?
posted by XMLicious at 7:11 PM on April 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


And who exactly are "the Hopi"?

Well, there's the the Hopi tribal chairman who is quoted in the first article linked in the post. And there are plenty of white people who think this sale is incredibly disrespectful, including me and also the US Ambassador to France, who is also quoted in that article.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 7:12 PM on April 12, 2013 [12 favorites]


dougmoon: "The problem is your idea of wealth and ownership is entirely capitalistic and disregards all others."

Not quite, although from your tone I don't think you're going to like my actual ideas any better than that. I'm not as attached to capitalism as I am to individualism.

My view is that a culture very literally is a non-entity with no rights. Cultures are valuable only insofar as they serve individuals. Not only don't they get rights, but they're amorphous anyway; they're extremely mutable, often lack well-defined boundaries, lack anything resembling a mind, and often lack any recognizably legitimate overall decision process. So it'd be hard for me to recognize a culture's opinion or decision as such, even if I thought it were important, which I don't.

A culture doesn't "own" its members, and it doesn't "own" property, either. And I don't think a tribe does either, unless you mean just the administrative part of the tribe.

A person or group of people who claim to speak for a culture is in my view just a person or group of people. They speak for the individuals who agree with them, and only for the individuals who agree with them.

Nothing to do with capitalism; everything to do with the idea that only individual human beings are worthy of consideration. Actually I'm willing to consider extending some consideration to animals, too. At least they're alive.
posted by Hizonner at 7:15 PM on April 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


And yet, not knowing who the seller is, it seems unlikely that anyone knows for sure that they were not stolen.

The burden of proof is on the owner, really. Provenance is a big deal in art. Anything you own and seek to sell on the open market, you had better have a clear, unquestionable, and unbroken paper trail on. Museums have now taken to identifying entire swaths of a collection where the provenance is unclear, because those things are definitely vulnerable to ownerships challenges - especially true for Nazi era works, but also definitely for Native American cultural material made and traded during a period of legal oppression.

In short, if you want to sell your grandfather's unprovenanced furniture, great, but if someone sees it in the auction catalogue and says it was in their grandfather's apartment in Vienna in 1938, you're going to have to prove you own it legally, and where it was during the Nazi era, to insulate yourself from a recovery effort.

IT's a very interesting and hotly emerging area of collecting over the last couple of decades. The US, Australia, Germany, Canada, the UK and New Zealand are way ahead than the rest of the world on hashing out practices and standards on the issue of redress.
posted by Miko at 7:16 PM on April 12, 2013 [12 favorites]


So it'd be hard for me to recognize a culture's opinion or decision as such,

Fortunately, legal challenges don't rest on a "culture" uniting and challenging ownership, they come to the legal system from a legally organized entity such as a tribal council, a legal affairs bureau, a corporation, or an individual. They draw authority from descendancy in a lineage, not from an abstract idea of "culture." It's true that sometimes not all members of a culture are engaged in legal challenges, which is fine.
posted by Miko at 7:17 PM on April 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Hizonner: "Nothing to do with capitalism; everything to do with the idea that only individual human beings are worthy of consideration."

Your belief that the elevation of the individual above culture and tradition has nothing to do with capitalism is roughly equivalent to a belief that magnetic North has no relationship whatsoever with the other cardinal directions.
posted by anewnadir at 7:22 PM on April 12, 2013 [20 favorites]


And who exactly are "the Hopi"? "

For starters, a nation.Here's their tribal government.
posted by Miko at 7:23 PM on April 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


auctioneer Gilles Néret-Minet: “In France you cannot just up and seize the property of a person that is lawfully his.”

This is such an interesting and revealing thing to say.

A note for Mr Néret-Minet: if you find yourself arguing that the United States Government should shut up about respecting Native Americans and take property rights more seriously, you should check over your math because you've probably made a slight error in calculation somewhere.
posted by koeselitz at 7:23 PM on April 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Miko: "Fortunately, legal challenges don't rest on a "Culture" challenging ownership, they come to the legal system from a legally organized entity such as a tribal council, a legal affairs bureau, a corporation, or an individual. They draw authority from descendancy in a lineage, not from an abstract idea of "culture.""

... except that they're not necessarily descendants of those involved, and don't necessarily hold a commission from those involved (or their errors).

From the messages since my first, it sounds like in this case there's a pretty high probability that the stuff really was stolen, by which I mean that the individuals who made it intended it to be part of a shared project with a bunch of other individuals, and either had no intention of letting go of it, or were so tied up in a web of agreements with other individuals that they couldn't do so even if they wanted to.

... but would any of those individuals have recognized today's tribal council? Or would they have had some other idea about what should happen? Maybe that council is the closest thing you can get to a legitimate owner, but it sounds pretty tenuous to me.

I'm kind of sensitive to this because of that case with the old skeleton a while ago, where people were claiming that the bones of their "ancestor" couldn't be profaned... but the person in question came from an earlier migration wave and wasn't actually an ancestor any more than everybody eventually is an ancestor of everybody.
posted by Hizonner at 7:24 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


When the US government says something, nobody takes it as the opinion of Americans in general.
posted by Hizonner at 7:26 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Heard Museum, which is widely respected on native issues and is no stranger to repatriation, and the Museum of Northern Arizona joined the Hopi tribe in expressing opposition to the sale.
posted by Miko at 7:26 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


"That thing was in XYZ tribal reliquary-or-whatever until somebody grabbed it, and everybody knew that it was stolen, and look, here's the newspaper article"

We're talking about 1920s-30s Arizona here. Do you honestly believe that the theft/disappearance of Hopi artifacts from mesas would have made the papers? Or been taken at all seriously by law enforcement? Or that the Hopi would have called attention to themselves by telling outsiders about it?
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:27 PM on April 12, 2013 [13 favorites]


... except that they're not necessarily descendants of those involved

I get the sense that you think you can assert this, but I challenge you that you can, especially for such a small group.

would any of those individuals have recognized today's tribal council? Or would they have had some other idea about what should happen? Maybe that council is the closest thing you can get to a legitimate owner, but it sounds pretty tenuous to me.

Whereas you think the French or US governments do not draw their authority from such tenuous links to the claims of past generations?

When the US government says something, nobody takes it as the opinion of Americans in general.

And yet when the US government takes part in international arbitrations, it does represent America as an entity, by consent of the governed.
posted by Miko at 7:28 PM on April 12, 2013 [13 favorites]


Nothing to do with capitalism; everything to do with the idea that only individual human beings are worthy of consideration.

Except for groups of people in the form of countries like France, which get to exist and dictate things like the rules of ownership in which all of this is happening. Whereas groups of people like the Hopi nation, because they haven't filed the correct paperwork or whatever holding a commission means, need no consideration when they say that the things which were supposedly sold can't have been because by their standards they weren't owned by any individual in the first place.
posted by XMLicious at 7:33 PM on April 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


Holy shit. What the fuck is wrong with some of you?

There is a lot of art in France held by French citizens and French museums that was stolen by Nazis. You know what the French government is trying to do? They're trying to figure out who, if anyone, the art or it's monetary value should be returned to.
posted by rtha at 7:34 PM on April 12, 2013 [19 favorites]


OK, sorry. They're not necessarily heirs of those involved. Or at least they're not necessarily the ones who those involved would want as heirs. Or maybe they would. I don't know.

I thought the French and US governments both claimed to get their authority from the consent of the (current) governed.

I guess you could say that they get their authority, such as it is, from rough consensus among those affected... and I'm not necessarily willing to treat that authority as unlimited, because that's kind of a funny basis for it. I also have some sympathy for the idea that they don't in some sense have any authority at all, but one should act as if they did because any attempt to challenge it would make life worse for tons of individuals. And I also have some sympathy for the idea that if they get too far out of line, they should be told to drop dead. I guess it depends on what legitimacy is, and that's a very tricky subject.

The government certainly doesn't speak for me in matters of opinion.
posted by Hizonner at 7:35 PM on April 12, 2013


Yeah, as Miko says, this is a big deal in the antiquities world, specifically for those with Native American artifacts. I just gave a little presentation on this to a class, talking specifically about that UNESCO treaty (the US signed on in 1982) and how despite it, looted art from Angkor Wat still goes up on sale at Christies with little to no provenance at all. When you're a relatively poor nation, it's hard to protect cultural heritage objects at risk.

For an example of what museums strive for with NAGPRA, here's an example of how the Peabody repatriated a totem pole taken in 1899 back to the tribe, which started a pretty cool partnership and the tribe having a new pole carved for the museum.

For Nazi looted art, the fairly new Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal is a good place to start. There are a lot of organizations bringing together the US and European countries (including, cough, France) to make archival information available to people searching for looted objects.

It's a big, murky area. But one hopes people at least make an effort to do the right thing. The little jokes the auctioneer was making are pretty painful.
posted by PussKillian at 7:37 PM on April 12, 2013 [12 favorites]


Yeah, and this is nothing American auction houses weren't happily doing until it became illegal here.

OK, sorry. They're not necessarily heirs of those involved. Or at least they're not necessarily the ones who those involved would want as heirs. Or maybe they would. I don't know.

Nope. And I would complicate that, too, with definitions of descendancy that privilege Western ideas of patriarchal property inheritance as opposed to Hopi matrilineal clan organization, which simply observes a different set of rules about who descends from and is related to whom. It's not as though the definition of "descendant" is value-neutral.

I'm not necessarily willing to treat that authority as unlimited, because that's kind of a funny basis for it

The classic philosophical justification for American government is the consent of the governed.

But as far as our national claims to own, say, Guam? That's simply an honoring of commitments/assertions made by people in the past, under conditions it's quite fair to question with the benefit of hindsight, regardless of what you think about it today, until that changes. Does that mean if someone decided to occupy Guam, we would sit by and let them have it? I don't know, but the recent death of Thatcher makes me think of the Falklands and makes me think: not.
posted by Miko at 7:39 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


A lot of the negative or skeptical comments here start with the same fallacy, namely that the system of private property ownership that attains in most Western democracies is something akin to the laws of thermodynamics; under this theory, 24 glass beads can be adequate consideration for the island of Manhattan. Louis CK put it best in his routine about the phrase "Indian giver".

I know it's Friday night and we all want to just go out and get drunk and stop thinking about the problems in the world, but pause for a minute and ask yourself: EVEN IF a member of the Hopi in the 19th century "sold" the katsinam to a French trader for money or whatever, does this make an auction of these objects in Paris in 2013 legitimate?

Given the history of the treatment that the Hopi and other indigenous people have been put through, do you really think that a rich art collector in Paris should be able to get away with selling these objects, given the context under which they were sold/taken/stolen/whatever?
posted by anewnadir at 7:39 PM on April 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


Hizonner, great that you have your own individually held philosophy on individualism, but you'll understand if I find it hardly compelling trotted out here to supplement a discussion in which a tribe's dissimilar beliefs regarding the sacred, wealth and ownership are tossed in front of a bus in service of others' private, individual enterprise in line with the dominant theme in over a hundred years of their recent history.
posted by dougmoon at 7:40 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hizonner: “A culture doesn't 'own' its members, and it doesn't 'own' property, either. And I don't think a tribe does either, unless you mean just the administrative part of the tribe.”

Without discussing my own position, I wish to point out that your view of ownership is very much in contradiction with the view of ownership espoused by the Federal Government of the United States. Specifically, the view of ownership you're describing is directly contravened by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

If you think the US Government is far too radical in its attempt to protect Native interests, that's fine; just keep in mind that you're arguing against consensus and our national law. And, again, without getting into my own position I would suggest that anyone who believes that the US Government has gone too far in its attempt to protect Native interests probably should read up a bit about the history of this subject.

And more generally, I would point out that there is no pure doctrine of property ownership espoused here in the United States. The Federal Government grants some rights to property for its citizens, but never absolutely; there are numerous and sundry limitations to property rights. In fact, it is a yearly custom for the same government to exercise the authority it has over property by seizing property from its citizens in order to fund government operations. Believe me – I just filled out the paperwork two hours ago.
posted by koeselitz at 7:44 PM on April 12, 2013 [23 favorites]


OK, sorry. They're not necessarily heirs of those involved. Or at least they're not necessarily the ones who those involved would want as heirs. Or maybe they would. I don't know.

Even speaking in terms of "heirs" would seem to be rather suspiciously like giving consideration to non-individual groups of people because it suits your taste in that case.
posted by XMLicious at 7:44 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


One of the weird things I've learned since interacting more in my career with Native American objects is how profoundly fetishized they are by outsiders. Yes, these things are beautiful and powerful. Some of them are even meant for sharing with others. But the insanely high prices paid by collectors - particularly in France, Germany, and in uber-wealthy and particularly entertainment- and finance-industry people in the US - is astounding. The only things to rival the sums involved are extremely famous European oil paintings. There's a lot of cultural baggage that drives this fascination. It's a side note, but part of the reason these interchanges are painful and extreme and unyielding is that there is a shit-ton of money in it for owners and auctioneers and gallerists.
posted by Miko at 7:47 PM on April 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


dougmoon: "Hizonner, great that you have your own individually held philosophy on individualism, but you'll understand if I find it hardly compelling trotted out here to supplement a discussion in which a tribe's dissimilar beliefs regarding the sacred, wealth and ownership are tossed in front of a bus in service of others' private, individual enterprise in line with the dominant theme in over a hundred years of their recent history."

I don't expect anybody to share my view (although some people do). But you have no more basis to expect anybody to share yours, or the Hopi's. Age, sacredness, sharedness... those are your values, not mine and not necessarily other people's. I assure you I don't find them compelling... and sometimes they have consequences I find scary. Hell, even my beliefs sometimes have consequences I find scary, although probably not as often as yours do.

Sometimes we don't all get to agree. Somebody's values are going to get "tossed in front of a bus" in the sense that certain things are physically going to happen, and they may not be what various people prefer.
posted by Hizonner at 7:47 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I bought some Tongan wood carvings of Tongan Gods from before the Mormons arrived. Should I return them to the artist who carved them, or should I bequeath them to my heirs so they can fight with the Tongan government about them in a hundred years time?
posted by tgyg at 7:47 PM on April 12, 2013


I have relatives who are Hopi, and when this auction was first announced we talked about this a bit--they noted that traditionally, there are certain items that aren't really private possessions and that these could fall into that category, ie, no individual would have been authorized to sell them. But they had plenty of anecdotes about people being swindled in different ways out of their artifacts--someone would promise that an important thing would go to a museum or be studied by scholars, and it would end up on the international market, or someone with an obvious financial need would get taken advantage of.
posted by padraigin at 7:48 PM on April 12, 2013 [10 favorites]


In short, if you want to sell your grandfather's unprovenanced furniture, great, but if someone sees it in the auction catalogue and says it was in their grandfather's apartment in Vienna in 1938, you're going to have to prove you own it legally, and where it was during the Nazi era, to insulate yourself from a recovery effort.

That seems backwards and an awful lot like guilty-until-proven innocent.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 7:48 PM on April 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


somebody's values are going to get "tossed in front of a bus"

I'm OK with that being the political-economic system that totally disenfranchised and systematically improverished and oppressed Native governments for three centuries before deciding their stuff was so super cool in the last 50 years.

It's only fair.
posted by Miko at 7:49 PM on April 12, 2013 [13 favorites]


If you are willing to call out Christians for believing fairy tales you need to extend your convictions to other groups too.


It's not just a matter of beliefs.

Religious secrecy is one of the means by which Native American tribes, not just the Hopi, maintain their solidarity, their cohesiveness, and therefore their very existence.

Their beliefs might be fairy tales, but those fairy tales help keep them from vanishing. Christendom is in much better demographic shape, and the occasional profanation might anger Christians. but it will not threaten their existence.
posted by ocschwar at 7:50 PM on April 12, 2013 [10 favorites]


That seems backwards and an awful lot like guilty-until-proven innocent.

It's pretty much the state of the international law on the issue, as far as precedent exists it's a young area.

It's not that people making the claim need no evidence, though. They do need evidence, which might be in the form of testimony, letters, bills of sale, photographs, newspaper writeups, etc. And then you, if you're the owner, try to counter that with whatever evidence that you can muster that it was in your family before.

But it's your responsibility, as the owner of your thing, to prove title to it. That's pretty normal in law. If you get pulled over and your car's VIN is titled to someone else, you'll get asked about it and maybe your car will even be impounded. I know, it happened to me! They didn't care that I was "guilty until proven innocent," even though it was my car dealer's fault in not transferring title, not mine. Let's not confuse the process of finding cause with the presumption of innocence principle which applies in an actual trial. All an accuser needs is a cause of action.

However, I can say that if you have zero documentation, and the accuser has abundant documentation, it will be a lot harder for you to beat the claim.
posted by Miko at 7:54 PM on April 12, 2013 [4 favorites]



I bought some Tongan wood carvings of Tongan Gods from before the Mormons arrived.


I have idols of Saraswati and Hanuman in my living room, along with Pueblo Indian pottery depicting figures from their mythology. I bought the latter from Pueblo potters under circumstances that make me reasonably confident that I was not making off with stolen goods, let along stolen goods from a sacred site. I think we can both rest easy. And the French auctioneers should be shamed.
posted by ocschwar at 7:54 PM on April 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


That seems backwards and an awful lot like guilty-until-proven innocent.

Provenance is a huge, huge issue in art transactions. Items are unique and irreplaceable, and transactions tend to be recorded and noted. Placing the burden of establishing legitimate provenance on the seller also helps to protect auction houses and buyers from potential forgeries.
posted by ambrosia at 7:55 PM on April 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


tgyg: “I bought some Tongan wood carvings of Tongan Gods from before the Mormons arrived. Should I return them to the artist who carved them, or should I bequeath them to my heirs so they can fight with the Tongan government about them in a hundred years time?”

Hypothetically: if I bought a bike on Craigslist – a really good deal on a sweet bike – and then it turned out the guy I bought it from stole it from somebody else, what do you think should happen? In those cases, the person who bought the property has an obligation – in some states an obligation by law – to look into the matter and at least try to make it right. There's a good reason for this. Legally, of course, it is generally a bad idea to make oneself part of a transaction that involves theft. But even extralegally – on a moral level – as good humans we have a responsibility to try to make sure that we don't facilitate and encourage theft, because next time we might be the ones stolen from.

Short version: yes, you should try to find out if your Tongan wood carvings were stolen. I understand that that might be hard, but it is the duty of anyone who buys cultural artifacts to understand their provenance. If they were stolen, you should make arrangements to return them, and you should try to report the person you bought them from. That's the right thing to do.
posted by koeselitz at 7:55 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


someone would promise that an important thing would go to a museum or be studied by scholars, and it would end up on the international market

Yeah, a lot of explorer/collectors and 19th century museum archaeologists pulled stuff like this. Wish it weren't true but it's uncontroversial that it happened.
posted by Miko at 7:56 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Angwusnasomtaka will take care of herself. The buyer, seller and auctioneer are the ones to worry about. A friend came into possession of some artifacts like these a couple decades back. He was a serious collector of Hopi items, and determined fairly quickly that he had something more than the usual tourist stuff. He later said he knew he should turn the items over, but it was too much to resist. All kinds of crazy things started happening. Thousands of crows decided to winter on his ranch. Dozens of birds in every tree. Made a huge mess everywhere, and they were always calling day and night. I went to see the crows and it was crazy. While I was at his house the glass front of the display cabinet went crack and suddenly there was a huge spiderweb crack in the glass like it had been hit for the inside by something trying to force its way out. Shortly after that he made sure the items got back to their rightful owners. The crows left within hours of the items' depature. Big flocks of crows arn't uncommon and its cold in winter up there in the mountains, a big glass cabinet might have been broken by some tempurature stres or a slight settling of the house from a frost heave. Maybe it was just coincidence and his guilty consience.
posted by humanfont at 7:58 PM on April 12, 2013 [32 favorites]


Somebody's values are going to get "tossed in front of a bus" in the sense that certain things are physically going to happen, and they may not be what various people prefer.

In this case, the value that gets tossed by acknowledging this auction as a bad idea and returning those items to the Hopi is the dollar, so why would we ever do that?
posted by dougmoon at 7:58 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Humanfont, you remind me of all the "I SHOULDN'T HAVE TAKEN A ROCK" stories at Petrified Forest National Park. Anyone ever seen those?
posted by Miko at 8:01 PM on April 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Miko: “In short, if you want to sell your grandfather's unprovenanced furniture, great, but if someone sees it in the auction catalogue and says it was in their grandfather's apartment in Vienna in 1938, you're going to have to prove you own it legally, and where it was during the Nazi era, to insulate yourself from a recovery effort.”

cosmic.osmo: “That seems backwards and an awful lot like guilty-until-proven innocent.”

Legally, the concepts are quite distinct. Ownership is not a measure of guilty or innocence. If you don't own something, that doesn't necessarily mean you're guilty of anything; it just isn't yours.

To take the example I used above:

If I buy a stolen bike from a guy on Craigslist, a bike that is a beautiful and irreplaceable work of art, it doesn't matter that I didn't know it was stolen when I bought it. I am not guilty of anything for buying it, but my property rights over the bike aren't inviolable and absolute. And if the police discover that I was the one who bought the bike, they will take the bike, return it to its owner, and demand that the thief repay me for the money I lost.

Property rights are, and ought to be, entirely distinct from questions of guilt.
posted by koeselitz at 8:02 PM on April 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


I also own a couple little teeny pieces of Native American and Aboriginal Canadian art. Which I bought from artists who wanted to sell it.

On our drive-around-the-Southwest trip last fall, the rangers at Mesa Verde and Chaco were all pretty blunt in their assessments of early "archeologists" who just....took stuff. They didn't necessarily sell it to the highest bidder - a lot of it ended up in museums and university collections - but they're items that are worth much less even historically now because the people who just up and took the shit didn't always document where they took it from. And, of course, many of those museums and university collections have sold off or traded parts of their collections over the years.

So remember, when you say that there's not much evidence that These People owned This Particular Thing, that there's a very deliberate reason for that. It's not just lost to the mists of time.
posted by rtha at 8:02 PM on April 12, 2013 [12 favorites]


Sometimes we don't all get to agree. Somebody's values are going to get "tossed in front of a bus" in the sense that certain things are physically going to happen, and they may not be what various people prefer.

But if you say that what your values are is to have no consideration of entities other than individuals, then you articulate all sorts of stuff that acknowledges authority or rights or otherwise gives consideration to a bunch of such entities, aren't you actually the one tossing your own values in front of a bus? And maybe even the one driving the bus over your values, hitting the brakes, throwing it into reverse, and driving over your values a second time backwards?
posted by XMLicious at 8:05 PM on April 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


On a side note, can anyone think of a large museum that does not have Hopi art on display?

It's not like the Hopi hoard these artifacts or that they're snatching them. They want their artifacts on display around the world. Museums want to display them. Museum goers want to see them. By disregarding the Hopi in this case, the parties involved aren't just committing injustice. They may find they committed a blunder.
posted by ocschwar at 8:06 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


The issue of religious art and artifacts is a complicated one. Since the Catholic Church was brought up, there are actually some Catholic scholars who do not believe Catholic religious art ought to be displayed in museums even if it's been decommissioned (and/or deconsecrated) from use because those objects only "make sense" within the practice of veneration in a chapel or church and that it's disrespectful to display them in a museum, stripped of their meaning and removed from their purpose and the community that they belong to. It's a minority position, but it's there. One piece that gets some people upset is the Isenheim Altarpiece, which is beautiful and artistically important, and scholars believe was used by the Antonine monks (for whom it was created) to comfort people dying of plague and ease them into the next life with comfort and dignity and love and the knowledge they were being cared for by Christ. It's obviously a hugely powerful piece of Catholic material culture, and some people do believe it ought to be returned to its intended use as a comfort to the dying in a hospital church or that it ought to be respectfully retired, rather than displayed in a museum. Again, it's a minority position, but this isn't some kind of primitive cultural backwardsness that enlightened modern folk can disregard; most major religions object to at least some of their religious artifacts being treated as "mere" art or artifacts.

I think there is a real and important value to having artifacts in museums (private collections trouble me more); it's a way of learning about other cultures and peoples that can't easily be replicated in other ways, because material objects have power. (If these material objects didn't have power, collectors wouldn't be so eager to buy them. Perhaps the Hopi and the collectors have different ideas about what that power is, but obviously these are powerful material objects.) But there are right ways and wrong ways to go about these tricky issues around the display of culturally and religiously significant artifacts. This was obviously, obviously the wrong way; I'm not particularly educated on Native American issues beyond what I learned in school, and it just hurt my heart to read the very evident anguish the Hopi felt in these articles. I mean, someone is crying out in obvious pain, "Don’t purchase that. It is a sacred being." and your response it "Sorry, other people think it looks cool"? Ugh, be a fucking human. The auction house should be ashamed and the collectors should be ashamed. It's a little shocking that in this day and age, someone who is interested enough in Native American artifacts to spend that kind of money can be either so ignorant or so callous that they're either unaware of or don't care about the moral dimensions surrounding the sale of Native American artifacts.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:10 PM on April 12, 2013 [13 favorites]


ocschwar: so far as I know, the Hopi make lots of kachina and pots that they then sell to outsiders, but the artifacts at issue in this auction are very much not for sale--they are used in their ceremonies. I've not read very much about the subject, but objects like this are almost presumed to be illegally-obtained because the Hopi consistently deny ever putting them up 'for sale'.

The few traders I've seen trying to sell them generally do so in a kind of "hush hush" type way, where they don't mention that they have these objects for sale until they trust that you won't snitch on them. Having seen a few less magnificent examples in person, I will say that you get the vibe that these are not the kind of thing that belong on a hook in your living room. People might laugh at humanfont's story above, but I have no trouble believing it.
posted by anewnadir at 8:12 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


somebody's values are going to get "tossed in front of a bus"

it's kind of like the helsinki bus station theory in reverse, isn't it?
posted by pyramid termite at 8:13 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


People might laugh at humanfont's story above, but I have no trouble believing it.

Just to be clear, I am not laughing at it. People consider objects powerful and they have many kinds of power. Maybe the crows were a coincidence. The mental connection of the crows with a kind of potential wrongdoing, though, is not a coincidence, even if you disregard all spiritual dimensions. Objects are surrounded by and embedded in ideas.
posted by Miko at 8:17 PM on April 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


I mean – let's take my hypothetical further, since I think it's nicely illustrative of this whole case:

I have a house full of neat stuff. Yeah, I'm a first-world guy, but that doesn't mean I don't love the turntable I built myself or the piano I hauled on my car all the way from California or the extremely rare first pressing of the No New York album. In short, I have a bunch of really neat stuff that I like – a bunch of neat stuff.

But when I think about where I bought these things, it might be disconcerting: I bought the turntable parts online, I bought the piano on eBay, I bought the album in a thrift shop. In none of those situations was I presented with some sort of certificate of authenticity or anything. I mean, these days, who is? That's just a given. The point is that any one of my things might have been stolen. And I live perpetually under the possibility that one of the things which I legally and rightfully bought might have been a stolen item, and the police may at any time show up at my door and demand that I surrender the item to the true owner.

I don't think people think about this much, but they should. Property is not absolute. The things we think are ours are not necessarily ours in an absolute sense. I know that's worrisome and a bit unfortunate, but it's the way the world pretty much must work.

In short: this is an extension of "caveat emptor," let the buyer beware. We have some responsibility to make sure that items we purchase aren't stolen. And it's important for us to note that this duty becomes more serious in proportion to the price or importance of the works we're buying.

And if it turns out we bought something stolen, well, it sucks, but we've got to give up that thing.
posted by koeselitz at 8:17 PM on April 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


On a side note, can anyone think of a large museum that does not have Hopi art on display?

It's not like the Hopi hoard these artifacts or that they're snatching them. They want their artifacts on display around the world. Museums want to display them. Museum goers want to see them. By disregarding the Hopi in this case, the parties involved aren't just committing injustice. They may find they committed a blunder.


My understanding via my Hopi family members is that they are fine with their artifacts being used for scholarly purposes including museum exhibition, because that's a great way to help people understand their culture. But while many museum artifacts do have a history of being stolen, the Hopi would prefer, like anyone, that their artifacts have an honest provenance.

Having no idea what the provenance of these items were, I would venture to guess that the Hopi might prefer them to be in a museum rather than in private hands, but would really rather just have them back, if provenance can't be raced. Just guessing though.
posted by padraigin at 8:18 PM on April 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


humanfont, Miko:

Uluru, more commonly known as Ayers Rock, has a collection of "sorry rocks" in the museum that have been returned to the park after misfortune and disaster befell those who took 'souvenirs' from sacred Aboriginal ground.

I had read about the sorry rocks before I visited the park in 2010, but it was still fascinating to flip through the book they have on display which contains the letters people wrote begging forgiveness and and redemption. Some people very truly did ascribe all their personal tragedies to their possession of a tiny pebble or stone. The book sits on a lectern with the rocks piled around the base. Anyone visiting Uluru should seek out the book BEFORE they walk around (and always around, never ON) the monolith. It adds to the profundity of the setting.

Once I left the park and made it back to the main highway, I was using a restroom at a the closest roadhouse and heard a clicking from my boot as I stepped onto the tile. Upon inspection there was a stone caught in the tread that I had brought out of the park. Now, I'm not a spiritual man by nature, but you better believe I asked around that roadhouse until I found someone who was heading to Uluru and agreed to drop the stone back from whence it came.
posted by The Notorious SRD at 8:19 PM on April 12, 2013 [13 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee: "Again, it's a minority position, but this isn't some kind of primitive cultural backwardsness that enlightened modern folk can disregard; most major religions object to at least some of their religious artifacts being treated as "mere" art or artifacts."

What if you consider all of those cases "primitive cultural backwardness"? I'm not saying I do, but that would certainly be a sustainable and logically consistent position.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 8:25 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


XMLicious: You've posted essentially the same comment twice.

The short answer is that you can do all of that stuff in terms of individuals, however sometimes the vocabulary isn't really available to express it simply... and sometimes there are a lot of ways to define the vocabulary that exists.

I can most certainly ascribe rights to individuals, in the sense of things that I "ought to do for them", or even of things that I "ought to expect or force others to do for them", without acknowledging any group to define what those rights are. That lets me call people "heirs", because I can recognize that they have at least some amount of right to something that derives from rights of people who died before them.

My using the plural is for various things is NOT a problem; it just encapsulates a plurality of relationships among individuals.

You'll notice that I've expressed some pretty strong doubts about authority, and even more about legitimacy. "Authority" is, roughly, something I tend to obey because I don't know how not to do that without screwing over a bunch of individuals. It's not always coherent, but it's usually good enough that you can figure out what to do to reduce your probability of stepping on somebody. But your right not to be stepped on is simply something that I, as my own ultimate moral authority, have decided to adopt.

What I end up having to give up is the idea of universal "rightness". I have my idea about what's right, or good, or whatever. You have yours. They won't always coincide. I don't see how I can sanely permit an authority to arbitrate between them. That's life. It doesn't mean we can't treat each other with some respect.

For that matter, I can even have political opinions about what laws should be... if I'm going to accept that rough "authority" consensus for consequential reasons, I'm certainly going to want to affect what the consequences are.

I don't do deontological ethics, by which I basically mean "Natural Law"(TM) (am I using the term right)? I also don't do "socially constructed" ethics (is there a term for that?). Although I'm largely a consequentialist, I recognize that in the end somebody has to decide how to value possible consequences, and in fact I don't even expect everybody else to necessarily value consequences over other kinds of rules.
posted by Hizonner at 8:26 PM on April 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Also, feel free to respect people's cultural traditions and whatnot, but the anecdotes in this thread about horrible misfortune befalling people after some sort of trespass... Are you serious? Do you also actually believe breaking mirrors cause seven years of bad luck? Do you avoid having 13 people at your table? How about black cats? Because it's about the same level of realism we're talking about here.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 8:28 PM on April 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


The Archaeological Institure of America has some good background information on Memoranda of Understanding here and here, mainly on the recent Chinese renewal but also on the original legal framework. While useful, they're very limited (the recent coins debates, for example, show the lobbying influence of antiquities dealers) and the US just has more with "source" countries than we do to protect our own patrimony.
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:30 PM on April 12, 2013


What if you consider all of those cases "primitive cultural backwardness"?

Fine, then we don't need any culture at all, including pop culture, design, family mementos, regional cuisines, etc.

You will be issued your wardrobe and furniture. I hope you enjoy your nutritionally optimized, neutrally flavored and allergen-free diet.
posted by Miko at 8:31 PM on April 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Also, in some cases it's dead evident that things have a shady provenance, so you shouldn't exactly be shocked when, for example, the "Table Support in the Shape of Griffins Attacking a Doe" you've bought so eagerly OUT OF THE BACK OF SOMEONE'S TRUNK may not be entirely on the up and up. And that's not an exaggeration - there are photographs of the work dumped in the back of someone's trunk and Marion True still bought them for the Getty.
posted by PussKillian at 8:31 PM on April 12, 2013


Miko: "Fine, then we don't need any culture at all, including pop culture, design, family mementos, regional cuisines, etc. "

That doesn't seem to follow, since I was talking about things based on superstition/religion/other non-rational beliefs.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 8:34 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


What's frustrating is how few objects from that stash of photos have resurfaced, so to speak-- they disappeared into private collections just as these will, never sued for and never seen.
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:36 PM on April 12, 2013


since I was talking about things based on superstition/religion/other non-rational beliefs.

And who appointed you the arbiter of which objects from some culture not your own, whose history you may know less than nothing about, served religious/superstitious/non-rational beliefs? Who are you to say "This bowl was a religious object, and therefore [foo]; this bowl was purely utilitarian, and therefore [bar]"?
posted by rtha at 8:38 PM on April 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


rtha: "And who appointed you the arbiter of which objects from some culture not your own, whose history you may know less than nothing about, served religious/superstitious/non-rational beliefs? Who are you to say "This bowl was a religious object, and therefore [foo]; this bowl was purely utilitarian, and therefore [bar]"?"

Because no one makes these claims about any purely utilitarian objects. The examples in the original comment I replied to were all clearly religious, and said specifically "most major religions object to at least some of their religious artifacts being treated as "mere" art or artifacts".

So the ability to make that distinction was a priori assumed. I just said that it would be consist to treat all religions big and small as equal bullshit when they claim something as sacred.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 8:46 PM on April 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's not an especially easy exercise to extricate superstition/religion/other "non-rational" beliefs from equally "non-rational" cultural signifiers like national identities, cuisines, clothing styles, etc.

To be less flip, you're to some degree right that almost everything we regard as art could be seen through the lens of a cultural claim. There will be cultural claims on Warhols and Koonses someday, if there aren't already. Yes, the idea of a cultural claim does intersect with lots of very big ideas of culture, nationality, ownership, membership, proximity, etc., all of which have definitions which also vary culturally. And no, that's not really different for the Mona Lisa than for a Hopi object.

However, we should carry on the argument imagining that the world's museums are going to empty out overnight due to cultural claims. Even a very few minutes perusing the NAGPRA and international repatriation links provided here should convince you that pursuing a repatriation/ownership claim is constrained by very specific law - law designed to set up narrow conditions in which such a claim can apply, and which usually include conditions like theft, deception, use of force, use of threat, etc. The conditions of sale are quite important - the documentation on both sides. Also, the laws (in the US at least) define a very clear process through which institutions owning a questionable undergo negotiations as to the outcome of the ownership claim, and a large number of outcomes (such as return, co-ownership, long-term loan, etc) are possible. I'm less familiar with Nazi repatriation law than with NAGPRA, but I'm assured there are many conditions that need to be part of a supported claim.

So to some degree, the conceptual issues one worries about in a "slippery slope" argument are pretty well headed off by the way in which the legistlative processes have been crafted by professional groups and governments, and it's not like it's just an easy thing to make a claim. It may well be that it's time to set up such processes and specific areas of law for the gajillions of altar paintings that have been sold out of closing Italian churches and into the museums of North American, for instance. And that path is open to anyone who seeks to pursue it, and the case is there to be made that - particularly in the postwar period - US museums and collectors were at an unfair advantage. We're not quite there yet, but you're right that there's a real sense in which there's no difference between Piss Christ, a Caravaggio madonna, and a Hopi doll, or for that matter, between a Caravaggio madonna and Marilyn Monroe. It's a matter of using the process of law to consider, and accept or reject, arguments that a wrong has been done. I think that as a global soceity, we're capable of that.
posted by Miko at 8:47 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Because no one makes these claims about any purely utilitarian objects

Oh wow. No, you're really really wrong about that. rtha's right that even the definition "utilitarian" takes part in ideas of usefulness vs. art vs. sacredness that many cultures flat out reject (including some Western cultures, like Catholicism, or we wouldn't have anything called relics). I'd argue that even secular culture rejects it, or we wouldn't see smelly used sports jerseys from sports heroes selling for bank at auction.
posted by Miko at 8:47 PM on April 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Joakim Ziegler: "What if you consider all of those cases "primitive cultural backwardness"? I'm not saying I do, but that would certainly be a sustainable and logically consistent position."

I actually thought about that after I posted and probably should have used a better phrase, but the idea I was after was this idea that primitive cultures are somehow animistic or fetishistic about objects in a way that modern cultures aren't, which is just flatly untrue. But if someone was claiming that religious material culture is by nature always superstitious and backwards, because I do think that's an objection one reasonably has to discuss, I think that, first, you could find an object of cultural significance that most people would get upset about it if someone wanted to spirit it out of the country (the National Archives' copy of the Constitution? Mary Lincoln's bloody fan?). Secondly, I think virtually all people would agree that they have some object in their home that has a sentimental value to them far beyond its actual useful or monetary or beauty value, such as a childhood stuffed animal or a recipe written in their mother's handwriting or a drawing from their child. If someone would agree to either of those positions, I think we could probably agree that some objects have special emotional value, and that which objects and why isn't really a function of logic. I don't think your childhood stuffed dog is of any particular value, but I don't have to; I just have to respect that you do. If we could agree on that premise, I think my conversation partner could at least understand why religious people might feel a particular investment in material objects. (Or, in the alternative, we could just do a "human material culture 101" rundown, some people prefer an anthropological approach.)

If someone is willing to argue that objects are just objects and never have any special meaning or emotional value, to the point that they'd be willing to rip a blankie away from an upset child because that blanket is just a blanket and obviously has no special emotional value to the child, well, then yes, I give up on finding common ground from which to start the conversation. :)

I taught Intro to World Religions for about five years, and most of my students had no prior exposure to non-Christian religions, so we often had to start from "primitive does not mean stupid" and "aboriginal does not mean superstitious," but I found that most students who started out with this "primitive cultural backwardness" mindset about non-Western cultures (whether the students were Christian or atheist) were able to at least get to "Okay, I see how other people could think thing X." I always had the best luck with "this thing that other people do that you think is superstitious and silly is very much like this thing that you do, which from another point of view might not be quite so sensible." I like using pretty universal human experiences to show how the same sorts of ideas might be expressed in different ways to get them to put themselves in someone else's shoes instead of immediately rejecting the idea.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:49 PM on April 12, 2013 [14 favorites]


What is wrong with people? Sometimes I just have to shake my head.

My parents taught me to respect other people's beliefs and traditions, even if I didn't believe in them myself. The base legality of the sale and 'ownership' of these artifacts should be beside the point.

Just like you wouldn't walk into a Catholic Mass, ignore the priest, put some cheese or peanut butter on the Eucharist, and chow down, I would surely think, if the Hopi said these are sacred to their people, you shouldn't hang them on the wall in your den or wherever. Having them there is like having a big red sign "HEY, I don't have any kind of respect or care for other cultures AT ALL! CHECK ME OUT!" Why would you ever want to own such a thing? I don't get it.

And then to crassly challenge the authority of individuals speaking for their people?

If you were an earnest scholar of Native American history, or art, maybe, maybe, I could imagine having access to such things, in a public museum somewhere. Are a lot of those people hanging around art houses in Paris? I am doubt.
posted by newdaddy at 8:51 PM on April 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Because no one makes these claims about any purely utilitarian objects.

You've just denied the existence of (or admitted to ignorance about, take your pick) any culture that does not clearly delineate between religious/spiritual practices and non-religious/spiritual practices.
posted by rtha at 8:56 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is that neo-atheist idea of treating others' religious beliefs with contempt? Is that what is going on with certain comments? It seems particularly obnoxious when used against the Hopi.
posted by Area Man at 8:57 PM on April 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


Personally and as communities and countries, it seems important to me that we recognize the rights of others. Our country (or at least the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations) was founded on the basis of respect for religious freedom. If we claim the right to interpret that for ourselves as "freedom from religion," then surely it behooves us not to disrespect or impose our choice on others who prefer religion.

I'm still waiting for the British Museum to return the "Elgin" marbles 'liberated' from the Parthenon to their (brand new, climate controlled, space especially reserved) spot in the Acropolis Museum.
posted by Anitanola at 8:58 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Apropos of nothing and everything--I'm very glad this thread was not cut off.
posted by Anitanola at 8:59 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, Anitanola, that Elgin Marbles issue is one to watch. I don't think it's going to happen, but it is a fascinating discssion.
posted by Miko at 9:00 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee: "I like using pretty universal human experiences to show how the same sorts of ideas might be expressed in different ways to get them to put themselves in someone else's shoes instead of immediately rejecting the idea."

That's a very good approach, I think, although I also think there's some fundamental difference between personal emotional connection, created first hand, and the importance you learn to ascribe to things because of the culture and religion you're brought up and live in.

For me personally, it's very easy to relate to the personal kind of connection (I have a few objects like that, though not many, and I remember many more such objects from when I was a child), but I'm lucky enough to not really agree with any such received importance (that I can think of, it' s possible that there are some corner cases).
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:01 PM on April 12, 2013


people equating the Hopi with the Catholic Church...

Hmm. The Catholic Church is immense in its wealth and political influence. Minor relics have been sold, undoubtedly. One of the reasons ol' Martin Luther nailed his writing to the door.

How would you feel if the shroud of Turin was on the market to the highest bidder? The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? I'm an agnostic/atheist by conviction and a Protestant by upbringing, but I would be fucking mortified and terrified for the well-being of the artwork and artifacts if it were sold at auction. That's our culture, man.

Now, let's look at science. I love science, it's awesome and it works. It has also done some incredibly inhumane things it didn't need to, or if it did, needed to do it differently. Henrietta Lacks and her HeLa cells. The Tuskegee Experiment. Jesus fucking christ, J. Marion Sims.

One of the questionable things Science did at or around the turn of the 20th century was Anthropology. Noble fossil chipping, Dr. Leakey stuff, right? Haha. No. They were robbing graves less than ten years old in the name of science. They were taking religious items at gunpoint and tossing a few bucks back by way of compensation.

It got so bad, the normally unsympathetic congress passed the The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

That French judge should have asked, what if someone chiseled out the Lascaux Cave Paintings, and offered them on auction to American, Chinese and English billionaires?

It doesn't matter if you believe in god(s) or not. Robbery is robbery. Sometimes things belong to more than one person.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:04 PM on April 12, 2013 [16 favorites]


rtha: "Because no one makes these claims about any purely utilitarian objects.

You've just denied the existence of (or admitted to ignorance about, take your pick) any culture that does not clearly delineate between religious/spiritual practices and non-religious/spiritual practices
"

Well, that delineation certainly seems to be valid in this case, since other people earlier in this thread have talked about how easy it is for anthropologists to distinguish between Hopi artifacts created for sale to outsiders and those created for ritual use, etc.

Could you perhaps give some examples of cultures that do not delineate in this way? I think all cultures I can think of (and I like to think I'm not totally ignorant nor eurocentric) do fairly strictly distinguish between objects for everyday use and those that are sacred or used for rituals, indeed, that distinction seems fairly basic to actually having ritual or sacred objects.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:06 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think because this is a general interest site, not everyone participating in the discussion has the same level of knowledge, and some folks are asking genuine questions that are fair to ask the (broader, not Metafilterian) community of those who shall henceforth be known as History People to address. If this is your first exposure to how controversial these issues can be, it raises a ton of questions like, "WHOA, my garage sale finds might be confiscated by the government? How is that not insane?" and "Wait, we have dead people and religious artifacts on display in museums all around the world, and I LOVE looking at dead people and religious artifacts and it helps me learn about other cultures and respect them more, are you now saying museums are bad things and I am a bad person for liking them?" and "Clearly there is a conflict of cultural values here, why does culture X get to make the rules?" and "My aunt collects Navajo art, are you saying she's a terrible human being?"

Those are all totally fair questions, and they all have answers that have been hammered out by cultural, national, and international communities in an evolving consensus over a fairly long period of time, so if History People start laying out the background, most sensible laymen will say, "Oh, okay, I see why it makes sense that the rules are that way, although what jumps to mind immediately is this edge case where the rule obviously fails -- how does it handle that?" I think some people are interpreting as jerkery a simple lack of knowledge and a quest to understand how and why the rules are that way. It gets totally exhausting to start from square one all the time when the History People community is on square 24 (and the battles to get to square 24 have been ugly, emotional, and exhausting), but, you know, square one is where people start.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:11 PM on April 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


In my own mind, I did a Solomon's Wisdom test. I imagined a wise judge (who never existed as described) to threaten to divide the artifacts in half and see who would break and beg the other side to have the whole to save the whole, out of true love for them. Sigh.
posted by Brian B. at 9:11 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


There are objects that are solely for ritual use. There are objects that are for ordinary, non-ritual use, but that does not actually make them not-sacred or otherwise lacking in religious or spiritual meaning. A point of view that says that this is a religious thing here, and this is not, is not a value-neutral point of view, and it's not free of its own cultural baggage and history. It's a perfectly valid point of view, but it's not universal and doesn't need to be treated as such.

And when one is talking about objects that have come from cultures whose histories have been deliberately destroyed, distorted, and hidden....well, again, I'm going to ask: Why does your assertion get to be the one that makes the rules that everyone else is supposed to follow?
posted by rtha at 9:18 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


What the fuck are you talking about? Are you implying that every Metafilter user has a collection of rare and valuable stolen antiques?

My house is built on stolen aboriginal land. Yours might be too. Maybe we shouldn't be so fucking precious. Maybe that's what he's talking about.
posted by Jimbob at 9:20 PM on April 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


My house is built on stolen aboriginal land. Yours might be too.

Ten times over, is the problem.
posted by Brian B. at 9:21 PM on April 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


rtha: "Why does your assertion get to be the one that makes the rules that everyone else is supposed to follow?"

I don't think I'm doing that. I think I'm asking some questions and hoping to get some reasonably well-thought-out answers.

I don't think "why do you get to decide" is a good answer, a better answer is "here's who gets to decide and why".
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:27 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hizonner: “I don't do deontological ethics, by which I basically mean 'Natural Law' (TM) (am I using the term right)? I also don't do 'socially constructed' ethics (is there a term for that?). Although I'm largely a consequentialist, I recognize that in the end somebody has to decide how to value possible consequences, and in fact I don't even expect everybody else to necessarily value consequences over other kinds of rules.”

Uh – well.

Ethics are either natural – inborne in some way, whether through natural law or natural right or something – or they're socially constructed and we decide to follow them anyway. So you just basically eschewed ethics of any kind whatsoever. Which is fine, it's just... did you mean to do that?

I mean – if you want to have ethics, you have to be able to identify situations in which other people do things that you believe are wrong, and you have to be able to condemn them for those wrongs. That may not be comfortable, but that's inherent in the concept of ethics, as opposed to "values." Ethics are, in other words, our imposition of our own "values" upon other people. This is pretty much the basis of civil society.
posted by koeselitz at 9:34 PM on April 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think I'm asking some questions and hoping to get some reasonably well-thought-out answers.

Your question here and your statement here make it pretty clear that you approach this issue in a way privileges one point of view over any other, and you managed to do it in a way that was pretty condescending and dismissive. It didn't seem like you were actually interested in learning about the cultural and historical nuances; you saw "religious" and rolled your eyes and dismissed any legitimacy to the argument that the French auction house did a wrong thing because supersitious nonsense.

But I'm done here tonight. If anyone else wants to help you out, more power to them.
posted by rtha at 9:44 PM on April 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


ocschwar: "Their beliefs might be fairy tales, but those fairy tales help keep them from vanishing. Christendom is in much better demographic shape, and the occasional profanation might anger Christians. but it will not threaten their existence."

The ends justify the means, eh? Certainly let's talk about how it is possible to support and uphold Hopi culture, which is doubtless under serious threat after generations of attack. But if cultural appropriation is the real evil, focusing on one particular instantiation thereof as the worstest thing to ever happen is a bit of an odd position to put oneself in.
posted by dendrochronologizer at 9:44 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Everyone privileges one point of view over another. I'm a rationalist, so I don't believe in the supernatural.

I do think it's interesting (and maybe slightly amusing) that a bunch of white people of European descent who would never ever believe in things like breaking a mirror causing bad luck will suddenly get Really Serious when telling anecdotes about how trespassing on indigenous beliefs brought people lots of bad luck and whatnot. In fact, I think it's the opposite of respect, it's something similar to the whole magical negro stereotype: Believing that aboriginal people are all somehow wiser than everyone else, possess deep knowledge of the nature of the universe, etc. It's stereotypical and kind of offensive.

Just because Native American and aboriginal beliefs of different kinds are just as ridiculous as white people beliefs doesn't mean we shouldn't respect them, of course. Respect doesn't require belief. I just resent this sort of cheap exotic mysticism.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:53 PM on April 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


As per humanfront, that which wants home will get home. Also, left unattended?
posted by hoople at 9:55 PM on April 12, 2013


Joakim Ziegler "...I think I'm asking some questions and hoping to get some reasonably well-thought-out answers."

There is more than rationality in culture. It may not be possible to answer every question with a rational response. Sometime that is not even because the question is skewed. Many posit an 'emotional intelligence' and there are obvious cultural and historical influences on individual preference that will never meet the definition of rational. If rational answers are the only answers you accept, you might be denying some truths.

I am reminded of the engineer who said to his girlfriend when she complained that he never showed his feelings and she wondered if he had feelings: "Define a feeling; draw me a diagram and I'll construct what you want--I'm an engineer, I only know how to make things I can visuallize." Or, JZ, perhaps I'm suggesting, "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy. . ."
posted by Anitanola at 9:56 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Anitanola: "If rational answers are the only answers you accept, you might be denying some truths. "

I'm not saying rationality is all there is. There's pretty obviously lots of things that are not. I do think sciences, like anthropology, should be rational, though. That is, we should be able to do rational analysis and description of irrational things like religion.

See Eyebrows McGee's answer to me above, for instance, for an excellent example of that, and pretty much exactly what I was looking for.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 10:00 PM on April 12, 2013


(I also happen to think that civilized discussion, like what we're having on Metafilter, should strive to be rational.)
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 10:02 PM on April 12, 2013


> Is that neo-atheist idea of treating others' religious beliefs with contempt?

Perish the thought. I can't speak for anyone else but this doesn't resonate with me.

One of the things most unbelievers most object to is having other people's religions forced on them. This is certainly not the case with the Hopi - I'd have noticed if Hopi Indians were knocking at my door trying sell Hopi-ism(*). Indeed, considering the sorry record of Christianity with respect to native traditions, I'd say that the Hopi and "neo-atheists" have similar beefs with the dominant religions of our time.

And you don't have to believe in Hopi traditions to understand that the American settlers simply took more or less everything the Hopi had, and these sacred cultural items are part of that looted history.

Oh, and I love to tell those stories about asshole westerners stealing things and coming to a sticky end. Don't forget that Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word...

(* - I would certainly let them in the door, as opposed to Jehova's Witnesses.)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:10 PM on April 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


I do think it's interesting (and maybe slightly amusing) that a bunch of white people of European descent

Talk about making assumptions.

/okayreallydonenow
posted by rtha at 10:14 PM on April 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


I can most certainly ascribe rights to individuals, in the sense of things that I "ought to do for them", or even of things that I "ought to expect or force others to do for them", without acknowledging any group to define what those rights are. That lets me call people "heirs", because I can recognize that they have at least some amount of right to something that derives from rights of people who died before them... My using the plural is for various things is NOT a problem; it just encapsulates a plurality of relationships among individuals.

Unless the inheritance they claim is based on being members of one of the groups that does not deserve consideration and who should get over it, instead of based on being members of the same family or whatever relationship you're designating as the one that determines that what you ought to do for the heir depends on what you ought to have done for the ancestor.

I mean, you question whether current Hopi tribal government would have been recognized by the people who originally possessed these artifacts, and thus that it has too tenuous a claim to authority to deserve any consideration when it describes the "plurality of relationships" those people would have operated with... but the French auction house on another continent a century later and the anonymous person auctioning it all off to the highest bidder and the French legal system governing all that and the framework of international law and authorities it's all nested in can be deemed as recognized and relevant?

No one's saying you can't believe in whatever ownership system you want, if that's why you keep emphasizing that these are your own beliefs, but I have to tell you that the principles you are articulating aren't ones that are particularly questioning of authority or prioritizing of the individual. You are just handwaving each group and authority you like into a "web of agreements between individuals" that you consider legitimate and dismissing the groups and authorities you don't like.
posted by XMLicious at 10:14 PM on April 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


god, those things are incredible.

the least the greedy bastards could have done is taken better photographs and posted a better image gallery online.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 10:16 PM on April 12, 2013


The ruling is interesting because it does seem there is a point at which a religious object loses its power and becomes merely a piece of art, or at least a point at which we treat it that way. France's oldest museums were built to display artifacts that Napoleon plundered from the graves of dead Egyptian kings, which, for all their ethereal beauty, can no longer be said to be holy in the way that the kaaba, for instance, is holy – which is to say, revered in the present by practicing members of a faith. Holiness (at least, the way its being treated in this case) is a sort of sociological phenomenon.

I wasn't able to find any definitive information on how these particular artifacts came into the hands of the party selling them, but it's a sad reminder that we live in a big, dumb world that still regards tribal people as backwards and their customs and religions as irrelevant. Now a bunch of guys in Italian suits will sit around a yacht smoking cigars and admiring these artifacts like they're just another collector's item. Another thing to add to the accumulated treasures that they will have buried in their own graves. It makes a sick sort of sense. Humanity.
posted by deathpanels at 10:19 PM on April 12, 2013


The Haida Nation.
posted by parki at 10:33 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm still waiting for the British Museum to return the "Elgin" marbles 'liberated' from the Parthenon to their (brand new, climate controlled, space especially reserved) spot in the Acropolis Museum.

I honeymooned in England, as I was born there and have a lot of family there I wanted my husband to meet, and we toured the British Museum, like you do. While we were there, we saw the Elgin Marbles, and there was a host of schoolchildren asking people questions and marking down the answers. One of them came up to me, and asked, "Do you think we should give the Elgin Marbles back?"

"Yes," I said. "I think you should give them back."

"Why do you think so?"

"Well, you can tell I'm American, right? Well, what if we came over here with our planes and our bombs and our warships, and cut all the stained glass windows out of Westminster Abbey, and carted them back to New York and set them up in the Met? Would you think it was fine for us to keep them, or would you be pretty ticked off?"

"Oh."

"Yeah, so, there you go."

The Hopi should get all these artifacts back, and everyone involved in the auction should be fucking ashamed of themselves. They weren't available for sale, whether they were purchased or stolen. It's like if aliens came, and I sold them the Washington Monument and the Grand Canyon; they could wave receipts around all they wanted, that's still not a legitimate sale, even though I'm an America.
posted by KathrynT at 10:44 PM on April 12, 2013 [13 favorites]


I do think sciences, like anthropology, should be rational, though.

I might have missed where this discussion has drifted to, but while anthropology may study how the concept of ownership is handled in different cultures, deciding who has ownership is not a matter of science, it's a matter of law.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:51 PM on April 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


The Hopi should get all these artifacts back, and everyone involved in the auction should be fucking ashamed of themselves.

Why limit this to artwork? How about you all give them their land back as well?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:27 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


One of those goals might be a bit more practical than the other.
posted by Drinky Die at 1:51 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why limit this to artwork? How about you all give them their land back as well?

An equally valid premise: why not start with artwork?

(Is there a disturbing uptick in libertarian-esque arguments which essentially boil down to "the divine right of kings" on MF lately? Rightful inheritance of privilege and wealth, importance of hereditary lineage...it's fucking weird and straight out of the year 1300. Maybe it was the theme at this year's RandCon.)
posted by maxwelton at 1:59 AM on April 13, 2013 [12 favorites]


Speaking of Rand (which we probably shouldn't, but), that quote from the art 'dealer':
He added that he will “probably not” ever give them back to the Hopis as “they didn’t care for them in the first place — now they want them because they have a value.”
eerily echos one of hers
Now, I don't care to discuss the alleged complaints American Indians have against this country. I believe, with good reason, the most unsympathetic Hollywood portrayal of Indians and what they did to the white man. They had no right to a country merely because they were born here and then acted like savages. The white man did not conquer this country. And you're a racist if you object, because it means you believe that certain men are entitled to something because of their race. You believe that if someone is born in a magnificent country and doesn't know what to do with it, he still has a property right to it. He does not. Since the Indians did not have the concept of property or property rights--they didn't have a settled society, they had predominantly nomadic tribal "cultures"--they didn't have rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights that they had not conceived of and were not using. It's wrong to attack a country that respects (or even tries to respect) individual rights. If you do, you're an aggressor and are morally wrong. But if a "country" does not protect rights--if a group of tribesmen are the slaves of their tribal chief--why should you respect the "rights" that they don't have or respect? The same is true for a dictatorship. The citizens in it have individual rights, but the country has no rights and so anyone has the right to invade it, because rights are not recognized in that country; and no individual or country can have its cake and eat it too--that is, you can't claim one should respect the "rights" of Indians, when they had no concept of rights and no respect for rights. But let's suppose they were all beautifully innocent savages--which they certainly were not. What were they fighting for, in opposing the white man on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence; for their "right" to keep part of the earth untouched--to keep everybody out so they could live like animals or cavemen. Any European who brought with him an element of civilization had the right to take over this continent, and it's great that some of them did. The racist Indians today--those who condemn America--do not respect individual rights.
posted by titus-g at 2:34 AM on April 13, 2013 [9 favorites]


Finally, there is a certain historical accuracy in the notion that almost all races/cultures/ethnic groups/etc. were probably at one time the victim and the victimizer.

Actually, that's ahistorical as fuck. That's saying all of history is one big amorphous mass and it's all to difficult to separate the injustices done by the Romans to Carthenage over 200 years ago with what the British did in Kenya in living memory.

In this particular case, it would be possible to investigate who's in the right and who's not, but it's far more profitable to those in possession of these artififacts to just throw up their hands and not bother.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:55 AM on April 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


Jesus, Rand was a sociopath fucktard. And you're right about the echo.
posted by maxwelton at 4:02 AM on April 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


An equally valid premise: why not start with artwork?

Start wherever you like, but I'll bet you the Elgin Marbles that it ends without the American people sacrificing any of the wealth or property that they stole from them.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:06 AM on April 13, 2013


Peter, some wrongs are un-rightable. We can't bring the victims of genocide back to life. The tribes were shattered and their culture actively suppressed for decades, and now there's a large nation built on those bones (and of course the bones and blood of African slaves, Chinese and Japanese laborers, Central and South American laborers, Irish laborers, on and on). American history is as horrific as it is triumphant. Ok.

That doesn't mean we should just keep piling on the injuries.
posted by kavasa at 5:18 AM on April 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


It's not surprising, but it is a little saddening how this thread serves as a reminder that many people, even intelligent and cultured people, either place such little value on the importance of history, culture, and social traditions, or are so cynical that they cannot imagine a world in which histories/cultures/traditions aren't being continually eroded.
posted by Rory Marinich at 5:46 AM on April 13, 2013 [9 favorites]


That Ayn Rand quote is wonderful. As always, Rand does a terrific job of stating exactly what she thinks, without softening the blow for audience who may not quite disagree with her worldview, and it really is a service to the rest of us. We can see both how vile that mentality is, and how sad and twisted a person must be to originate such a thought. (Parroting is much easier, because a parrot never has to think about the implied thoughts that his words would seemingly declare.)

It's a pity, though, that Rand doesn't make an attempt to define culture, except circularly. What defines a savage culture versus her seemingly sophisticated culture? Is it the incessant need for growth and change? Because that strikes me as an adolescent trait for a culture to have, the sort that manifests itself along with pimples and an obsession with addictions in its various forms. Hey wait! That kinda sounds like us!

She suggests that what she truly despises in native cultures are their barbaric practices like slavery to chiefs. Which, well, is grossly unfair: first, it's such a blanket condemnation of "the people who lived here before we did" that it ignores all possibility that a single practice by one native group does not belie more sophisticated behaviors, more sophisticated methods of handling the world. But more importantly, it underscores how sadly shallow Rand's understanding of the culture she lived in was. Would that she could have devoted her life to fighting racial imbalances, systematic inequalities in the sexes, the barbaric excesses of capitalism that manifested themselves even in her time.

An Objectivism that describes freedom against the crimes of other humans might be useful if Rand had a decent understanding of what crimes other humans commit. Imagine an Atlas Shrugged where Galt eliminates the injustices of poverty and sickness, of the abuse of wealth, and identifies the true leeches on society as those with so much money that it begins to distort the notion of "value" in favor of people who could not possibly work hard enough to deserve their fortunes. Ahhh. Alas. Instead we have something that justifies the petty behaviors of adolescents – "I don't understand why people resent me for being who I am. Isn't it their fault that they're not more like me?"

We're hearing a lot of that teenaged whinery in this thread, methinks. Those silly Hopi, losing their cherished cultural items! They're just mad that they didn't recognize how valuable their artifacts were, in objective human money units. Besides, property is individual, don't they know that? Silly Hopi! Just because you didn't understand the basic rules of culture that we invented for our own use doesn't mean they don't objectively exist in whatever manner we decide works best for us at a given time.
posted by Rory Marinich at 6:12 AM on April 13, 2013 [15 favorites]


They're just mad that they didn't recognize how valuable their artifacts were, in objective human money units..

A good, relevant book by a guy with a rather excellent name.
posted by titus-g at 7:08 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


dis_integration: If we traced the history of property and weighed it all on the scales of justice, everyone of us would have to be condemned. And yes, I don't see why one person's religious beliefs should matter here. What isn't stolen? What isn't profane anymore? We are very late in this here life, we fallen beings. Perhaps I should return my clothing to the semi-enslaved cambodians who made it.

What you did just there says nothing about the relative morality of action A and action B and says everything about the poor moral reasoning of the speaker. Do you rationalize everything you do and see others do like this? You do know that you have a $%#$ choice to not buy sweat shop clothes? Yes, yes, we are all hypocrites and we all choose our battles because, if we didn't, we would martyr ourselves in this modern world, but to dismiss ethical pursuits whole cloth because we can't be perfect is nihilism.

Keith Talent: If you are willing to call out Christians for believing fairy tales you need to extend your convictions to other groups too.

This brand of militant atheism is every bit as destructive as militant religion. Either 1) afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted or 2) be civil or 3) keep your beliefs to yourself. What is the point in attacking the beliefs of a minority that has a long tradition of "live and let live?"

Hizonner: My view is that a culture very literally is a non-entity with no rights. Cultures are valuable only insofar as they serve individuals.

Your view is wrong. The Hopi are a sovereign government within the borders of the United States. If gravestones from Arlington National Cemetery started showing up in French auctions, you bet there would be one heck of a stink and one would not have to ask whether or not they were stolen or sold because no one person has the right to sell such a thing.
posted by Skwirl at 8:09 AM on April 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


Is that neo-atheist idea of treating others' religious beliefs with contempt?

I think it's important to acknowledge complexity within Native American communities with regard to religion. There are, after all, atheist Native Americans who also see value in their cultural traditions. Noah Nez, Hopi on his mother's side and Navajo and Apache on his father's side, discusses the harmonies he sees between traditional thought and a naturalist, scientific worldview:
Native Americans have stories and tradition of ceremony that are used as the testimonial evidence of nature. There is an ever-present concept of using methodology to seek guidance from "Mother Earth" about the truths in our lives and reality. This is why as scientific thinkers, we can say that we are somewhat free of personal bias because we let nature tell us what is real and this defines what it means to be a "free-thinker." So scientific understanding and skeptical thought are not actually novel to Native Americans. In fact I've found that the representation of the Clown (or Trickster) in tribal philosophies is a reminder to always be aware of certain blind spots in humans understanding of nature and they acknowledge that ignorance by questioning their perceptions of reality.
posted by audi alteram partem at 8:16 AM on April 13, 2013 [6 favorites]



ocschwar: "Their beliefs might be fairy tales, but those fairy tales help keep them from vanishing. Christendom is in much better demographic shape, and the occasional profanation might anger Christians. but it will not threaten their existence."

The ends justify the means, eh?


I'll remind you that the means in question are nothing more than Indians asking nicely that certain things, places, and events not be photographed, and certain events not be prodded into by non-tribal members.

I managed to live in close proximity with Indians for 3 years and comply with that request without even thinking about it. It is too trivial a request to bother breaking.
posted by ocschwar at 8:25 AM on April 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Why limit this to artwork? How about you all give them their land back as well?

This is a communist gesture involving land title and ownership, which makes it seem like a contradiction, and probably impossible too. But we might imagine it going down like it did when they pretended to give out a few acres to each family in California's Central Valley after they confiscated all of the water from local control. It ended up in very large corporate hands. Even if we pretended to worship the imagined bloodline of each locality and gave them oversight, we should probably get used to the idea of having a westernized native overlord who uses DNA tests to determine who will get revenue from the casino, even inside their own tribes after many generations. And if environmentalism inspires us, we should know that endangered eagles can be hunted for their sacred feathers, because white guilt is like putty in court too. Or we might want to wake up to the history first and realize that everything has changed and we must deal with it instead of fleeing to romantic racism. We should be satisfied with a modern approach to the socialism of human predicament, inspired by Native Americans and others, whose rude and unjust conquer should guarantee free food and shelter to anyone in need on the land forever, rather dream of starting over and watch it all happen bad again, as if the outcome isn't guaranteed a million times over.
posted by Brian B. at 8:56 AM on April 13, 2013


Brian: You wield sarcasm and teleology like blunt objects.
posted by anewnadir at 9:00 AM on April 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


Brian: You wield sarcasm and teleology like blunt objects.

Apologies, I'm just well rested at the moment.
posted by Brian B. at 9:03 AM on April 13, 2013


Why limit this to artwork? How about you all give them their land back as well?

Giving the art back is easy, giving the land back is hard. Why not at least solve the easy problem?

Also, my grandmother worked tirelessly for most of her adult life to return American resources to Indian hands to the maximum extent practicable, winning treaty enforcements and sovereignty for many tribes through her expert testimony. While I recognize that those are her accomplishments and not mine, the fact remains that this isn't some abstract thought experiment for me, it's something I grew up with as part of daily family discussion and life. It's a hard problem, but that doesn't mean we can blow off every aspect of it.
posted by KathrynT at 9:16 AM on April 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


t does seem there is a point at which a religious object loses its power

To whom does it lose its power?
What power(s) does it lose?

and becomes merely a piece of art, or at least a point at which we treat it that way.

Who is "we"?

dead Egyptian kings, which, for all their ethereal beauty, can no longer be said to be holy in

There are regular cultural revivals which re-invest "holiness" into certain objects. One of the groups that's been active where I work lately is a Hawaiian cultural revival group - a lot of Hawaiian traditional practice was suppressed, first with coloization and then very explicitly during statehood. Today, people who were brought up in a Christianized religious context are exploring traditional religion and building new or revived religious practices around Hawaiian deities. So worship practices not done for decades are being reawakened and reinterpreted in ways useful to people in the present day.

Also in those cultural revivals, "holiness" may not be the sole value or even a value central to the argument for protection. Negotiators may instead assert political, ancestral, monetary, or cultural value just as well as religious value. Should the argument be any weaker if it doesn't include a sacred element? IS it OK to steal something as long as it's not something currently being worshipped?

(Is there a disturbing uptick in libertarian-esque arguments which essentially boil down to "the divine right of kings" on MF lately

Not just on MeFi, it's in the culture, on their blogs...I think you're right, it's flavor of the year at the think-tanky get-togethers.

Why limit this to artwork? How about you all give them their land back as well

These aren't mutually exclusive goals, and doing the one even advances the idea of doing the other. THough it was rough, I agree with Brian B.'s statement that we can no longer remake a past world. However, we can have a more just present and future world, which starts with taking seriously the diplomatic requests of legimitate nations. If, indeed, we can sit at negotiation tables in an atmosphere of mutual respect, with an awareness that one nation was a target of a planned attempt at total genocide only a little over 100 years ago, we can begin those discussions about what "making it right" looks like in today's world.
posted by Miko at 9:58 AM on April 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


> Not just on MeFi, it's in the culture, on their blogs...I think you're right, it's flavor of the year at the think-tanky get-togethers.

I don't think it's flavor the year, I think it's the flavor of a portion of the new rich. The internet was pioneer country a few short years ago, it's not surprising that people who make their money off of it are intrigued by pioneer aesthetics.
posted by tychotesla at 10:10 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


This reminds me of the issues surrounding the repatriation of Māori and Moriori ancestral remains, mostly tattooed heads collected as curios by Westerners and later sold to museums. There was a big fuss about this in France a few years ago and the French parliament ended up passing a new law to allow the repatriation. The 20 mummified heads of Maori warriors went home in January 2012. Some US museums have started giving theirs back too, but the largest collection (about 35 heads) outside New Zealand is still in the American Museum of Natural History in New York who was in 2012 still reluctant to talk with representatives of the Te Papa Tongarewa museum: "Somewhat perversely, Te Papa has one other trump up its sleeve. Among the human remains it still holds are those of several native Americans from New York".
posted by elgilito at 10:12 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


That article says Te Papa has human remains from 20 countries and hasn't repatriated any of them. Why didn't the reporter investigate that more?
posted by Area Man at 10:42 AM on April 13, 2013


I'd love to hear more about that, too. I don't know much about Te Papa specifically, but I can say these things, which may mean it's not as insidious/hypocritical as it might first appear:

-Almost all encyclopedic or natural history museums established prior to WWII have human remains. 20 would actually be a small amount on the grand scheme.
-Any transfer of human remains is initiated by specific request for return. Most museums don't volunteer to transfer items from their collection on their own initiative. Someone has to ask for the remains.
-Human remains need to be kept stable. They are expensive to store and conserve. Museums don't transfer them casually. Once a request is made, one of the biggest processes it kicks off is a review of the proposed site to which the remains will be transferred and the care plan for the remains. If there is question about whether they will be cared for as well in the new site, work has to be done to determine whether that's acceptable to both the museum's institutional agreements and the requesting institution. For instance, as with the toi moko, sometimes the intent is not to preserve the remains museum-style, but to inter them. In other cases, they may be incinerated, destroyed in a ritual, left to decay naturally, or put into a specific use. All that has to be reviewed.
-The process of repatriation takes years, and can easily span decades.
-Finally, it is not ridiculous to understand that there is value to having the possibility of an exchange to bargain with.
posted by Miko at 10:56 AM on April 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


Since people are comparing the Hopi mask to Catholic ritual objects, I figure I'll toss in this link:

http://www.squidoo.com/17thcenturymissionchurches

The cousins of the Hopi in Acoma and Isleta pueblos once contended for ownership of an icon of St. Joseph.

And I think the same point applies: the revered status of the object is prima facie evidence that the original taking of the object away from the tribe was an act of theft.
posted by ocschwar at 10:57 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here is a list of NAGPRA inventories compiled by American museums. Note that the remains identified in the inventories are only of indigenous North American or unidentified people. So they don't include remains from antiquity (Greece, Rome, Egypt) or Europe (relics, etc) or even indigenous people from other parts of the world. So there are a whole lot of remains out there.

I think the time is past where human remains in the museum makes any sense. I went to see the Secrets of Tomb 10A a few years ago, and while it was a great show from a material culture and cultural history standpoint, there is a human body in the middle of it, on view to be gawked at. It partakes of a carnivalesque exhibition approach which I think is best left in the 19th century. That's my personal view. There are also interesting questions raised about human remains in museums by the recent super-popular humam-body shows Bodies and Body Worlds that have been the biggest museum blockbusters ever in recent years. There are some important ethical questions raised by those, with Bodies especially being a show some museums have preferred not to touch with a 10-foot pole.
posted by Miko at 11:06 AM on April 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Isn't there any way to make sure that both sides can be recompensed? Stolen property is returned to the individuals it was stolen from, but financial recompense at market value be made to the people who bought it?
posted by corb at 11:35 AM on April 13, 2013


Stolen property is returned to the individuals it was stolen from, but financial recompense at market value be made to the people who bought it?

I imagine that the problem there might be figuring out who's on the hook for what.
posted by jquinby at 11:44 AM on April 13, 2013


financial recompense at market value be made to the people who bought it?

Other stolen-property law doesn't work that way. Caveat emptor...
posted by Miko at 11:47 AM on April 13, 2013


but financial recompense at market value be made to the people who bought it?

That would reward moral hazard. In theory by punishing people who buy shady stolen unverified goods you signal to others not to buy shady unverified goods.
posted by tychotesla at 11:48 AM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Stolen property is returned to the individuals it was stolen from, but financial recompense at market value be made to the people who bought it?

I have a cunning plan!

Steal, sell, split, recompense 50/50 with thief! (There's a reason for the way things are as they are).

Although if the manner of recompense is that the seller returns what he was paid, that would work. Or in this case, if the buyer was provided with a nice replica, without the culture and history that actually give it value... (see, culture and history actually do matter to the buyers - which adds to the hypocrisy).

If you are buying something, then there is an onus on you to make sure that it is sold in good faith and in accordance with the rules of the market system you are partaking of (which in our current society includes that it hasn't been half-inched), the more you're spending the more the due diligence warranted. Don't gamble on dodgy deals (which this really, really, really is) what you can't afford to lose.

Caveat tosser.
posted by titus-g at 11:53 AM on April 13, 2013


ermmm that last line is about the buyers, not Ms NicCorberson.
posted by titus-g at 11:55 AM on April 13, 2013


KathrynT, thank you for the link to the piece about your grandmother. What an inspiration!
posted by Anitanola at 12:50 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wow, I missed that link! Yeah, she sounds amazing, quite a pioneer and very influential.
posted by Miko at 12:53 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


In response to people questioning the photographing of sacred things, it really helps if you know more about the native cultures of the US, and I imagine some of these examples are found in other dwindling native populations elsewhere. There are only 18,327 Hopi people in the United States, per the 2010 census. Like many native lands in the US, no recording is allowed while in and around Hopi villages. These are sovereign nations, with their own laws. There is broad support for such practices, even of extinct communities in the US. For example, I recently visited murals from the Kuau pueblo in New Mexico, and these are fragments of original, sacred paintings. Visitors aren't allowed to photograph them. On that tangent, here's more history of the Kuau(a) Pueblo
posted by filthy light thief at 2:01 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


An equally valid premise: why not start with artwork?

Start wherever you like, but I'll bet you the Elgin Marbles that it ends without the American people sacrificing any of the wealth or property that they stole from them.



The guys who lost and the guys who stole it are dead. Their children are mixed up with the general population to the point that we don't even know who would have a claim and who would have to give something up. Native Americans have had a high rate of intermarriage. The US census are 4.5 million people who identify as mixed race Indian (typically meaning child of a Native American), compared to 2 millions enrolled tribal members. During the Warren campaign I read that something like 30-40% of Americans claim to have one native anscestor. The e rolled tribes thing also overlooks the fact that a number of tribes are still contesting the historical record and asking for federal recognition. DNA studies which look for a few known markers and probably undercount have found that it is at least 5% of the population.

Where do you even begin to set things right in terms of land ownership. There are hundreds of tribes, the borders between them shifted constantly, many of the tribes who had claims no longer exist at all. For example when the settlers arrived at Plymouth they found an abandoned Indian settlement. Plague has killed everyone a few years before. Who do you give Plymouth back to?
posted by humanfont at 2:13 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


corb: “Isn't there any way to make sure that both sides can be recompensed? Stolen property is returned to the individuals it was stolen from, but financial recompense at market value be made to the people who bought it?”

This is the reason we have courts: to try to arbitrate these situations and achieve the most just recompense. In cases where a person unknowingly bought stolen merchandise, courts generally attempt to make sure that person gets their money back, at least as much as possible. If the courts fail to appropriately recompense the innocent purchaser in those cases, then in all 50 states they may have recourse to filing a lawsuit to recover the damages.

However, it should be noted that NAGPRA also imposes certain responsibilities on purchasers – in fact, it is made incumbent on the purchaser to know the provenance and legal transferability of the items they're buying. In the same way that, if you buy a car and drive it without the proper licensing, it will be impounded – the buyer has some responsibility in the transaction to make sure that everything is legal and formally correct. People (like the French judge in this case) might complain that this imposes an unfair limitation on their rights to ownership of an object; but it's not any less fair than the limitation that (for instance) you're not allowed to buy a gun on the black market, or to buy high-grade morphine on the street. These are appropriate and reasonable limitations that are placed on ownership; and buyers must be careful that they aren't violating this relatively straightforward set of rules about what can and cannot be bought.

Basically, to the degree that you were innocent of malicious intent, a judge will probably try to make sure you get repaid for an unwitting purchase of a non-transferable item; but we you can't count on it, because every case is different, and returning items to their original owners is more important than protecting the rights of purchasers in transactions.
posted by koeselitz at 2:37 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Miko, I think the time is past where human remains in the museum makes any sense.

I agree, and felt a lot of sadness when I viewed the travelling Tut exhibit, yet, there sits Jeremy Bentham at Oxford where he willed his remains to be.

(Actually, I should apologize, I'm really not trying for the world's record British-themed derails; it's just that their spectacular offenses to my sensibilities seem to succeed brilliantly.)
posted by Anitanola at 2:45 PM on April 13, 2013


These are appropriate and reasonable limitations that are placed on ownership; and buyers must be careful that they aren't violating this relatively straightforward set of rules about what can and cannot be bought.

Sure - but in many of these cases, the original buyer did so legally. We could (and many do) say that it was not morally, but back in the 1930s, there were no laws against buying artifacts in a lot of different places throughout the globe. Let us suppose someone purchases such an artifact in 1930, then passes it down through the generations to their grandkids. Now no crime has been committed - the buyer took due diligence at the time of purchase. Now the grandkids have it, though laws have been made in the meantime. Who is in the right here? This is why I think that we should try to negotiate a middle path.
posted by corb at 3:04 PM on April 13, 2013


I would think we could probably all agree that it's not really a huge problem to display 3500 year old human remains in a museum, or religious artifacts of the same age, belonging to a religion no one practices anymore and hasn't for millennia.

I say "I would think", because there are apparently people in this thread ready to be "sad" or "offended" by such things too. That seems spectacularly silly to me.

(Note that this is a different question from whether or not Egyptian artifacts should be returned to Egypt; I think they probably should.)
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 3:04 PM on April 13, 2013


Joakim Ziegler: Obviously we don't all agree, although you make your position quite clear. I would suggest that it is one thing to express how one feels about a thing and quite another to call other peoples' ideas 'spectacularly silly.'
posted by Anitanola at 3:17 PM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Let us suppose someone purchases such an artifact in 1930, then passes it down through the generations to their grandkids. Now no crime has been committed - the buyer took due diligence at the time of purchase. Now the grandkids have it, though laws have been made in the meantime. Who is in the right here?

But in most cases, an object bought legally in 1930 is perfectly fine and legal to own now. An object bought legally in 1943 that came from a Nazi-owned collection composed of artworks stolen from a Jewish family is not. An artwork that was thought to have been bought legally in 1930 that had actually been stolen from a Hopi family and was being sold in the US would be a different issue. Artifacts with dubious provenances from the 1970s are almost certainly less than legal, even if sold through a big auction house. Different countries have different frameworks of laws around artworks, and realistically, buyers at the upper end of the spectrum are well-aware of the issues.
posted by jetlagaddict at 3:23 PM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I would think we could probably all agree that it's not really a huge problem to display 3500 year old human remains in a museum, or religious artifacts of the same age, belonging to a religion no one practices anymore and hasn't for millennia.

I handle remains that are nearly that old and some that are much younger in a museum context, and while I think they should stay in the museum, I would never brush off the concerns around displaying human remains, no matter how old they are. I treat them with as much respect as possible. It's a good dialogue for museums to have, whether they have 20 heads or parts of 20,000 individuals.
posted by jetlagaddict at 3:27 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is why I think that we should try to negotiate a middle path.


No. We should try and find the most just and rational (based on context, culture, history, and all that we know and now hold to be true) path.


The middle path is easy and lazy and almost always wrong.
posted by titus-g at 3:33 PM on April 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


No, we don't all agree. Like jetlagaddict, I work around and with material like this, and people with these concerns, and I'm not "spectacularly silly" to be concerned about the ethics of their treatment, handling, and display.
posted by Miko at 3:38 PM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


this is a different question from whether or not Egyptian artifacts should be returned to Egypt; I think they probably should

Why? They're just objects.
posted by Miko at 3:44 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pretty late to the thread, and I don't know that it will move the dial for anybody, but- for anybody going on about primitive superstition and whatnot, it might hold some information.

When I was a kid our soccer coach was Hopi, and we talked about Hopi things with him a bit. I remember asking him at one point about 'religion', being sorta newagey myself at the time.

And what he said was something like, we don't have a 'religion.' We have a way of life, and it encompasses everything about how we live, everything we do. It's not a separate category, it's not something you can learn without living that life, in that part of the world. It's not even really a 'set of beliefs' I can talk about in those terms- it's a way of doing things. .

So I guess that's primitive, or something, but if I hear somebody going on about how 'primitive and superstitious' a person would have to be in order to believe that any particular object was sacred, I just think they don't understand the context, at all. I mean, unless you're going to write off the entire concept of 'meaning,' I can't even imagine trying to tell other people they're primitive for thinking that things can have it. And until after the singularity when we all live in the Central Core or whatever, and there aren't things any more, I imagine that will continue to be true.

N.B.- I understand that my friend doesn't - and never claimed to- speak for the Hopi people as a whole except insofar as it might amuse him to do so. But I don't have any reason to think what he said was untrue.
posted by hap_hazard at 3:59 PM on April 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


"Such a sale would have been illegal in the United States" No. NAGPRA only applies to fed. agencies or institutions which have rec'd fed. funds (except the Smithsonian). This was a sale by a private party AFAIK.
posted by alabamnicon at 4:33 PM on April 13, 2013


corb: "Let us suppose someone purchases such an artifact in 1930, then passes it down through the generations to their grandkids. Now no crime has been committed - the buyer took due diligence at the time of purchase. Now the grandkids have it, though laws have been made in the meantime. Who is in the right here? This is why I think that we should try to negotiate a middle path."

That sounds nice, but practically it doesn't amount to much. If I own Hopi tribal objects, then they have no value whatsoever on the open market, since selling them is illegal. A "recompense" only makes sense if I personally paid for items - not if I inherited them for free.
posted by koeselitz at 4:44 PM on April 13, 2013


alabamnicon: "No. NAGPRA only applies to fed. agencies or institutions which have rec'd fed. funds (except the Smithsonian). This was a sale by a private party AFAIK."

This is flatly false. Have you read NAGPRA? I suggest you do; it does not distinguish between public and private sales. "Right of possession" is guaranteed by voluntary consent, nothing else.
posted by koeselitz at 4:49 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


To be more clear about that, alabamnicon - here is the relevant portion of NAGPRA:
SEC. 4. ILLEGAL TRAFFICKING.
(a) ILLEGAL TRAFFICKING.--Chapter 53 of title 18, United States Code [which deals specifically with crimes with respect to "Indians"], is amended by adding at the end thereof the following new section:

" 1170. Illegal Trafficking in Native American Human 1170. Illegal Trafficking in Native American Human Remains and Cultural Items

"(a) Whoever knowingly sells, purchases, uses for profit, or transports for sale or profit, the human remains of a Native American without the right of possession to those remains as provided in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act shall be fined in accordance with this title, or imprisoned not more than 12
months, or both, and in the case of a second or subsequent violation, be fined in accordance with this title, or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.

"(b) Whoever knowingly sells, purchases, uses for profit, or transports for sale or profit any Native American cultural items obtained in violation of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act shall be fined in accordance with this title, imprisoned not more than one year, or both, and in the case of a second or subsequent violation, be fined in accordance with this
title, imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.".
Note that nowhere here are public or private sales distinguished, and nowhere is this amendment specified to apply only to sales done with public money.

In short, it doesn't matter if you sell them out of the trunk of your car to a guy you found on Craigslist; selling these artifacts is flatly illegal.
posted by koeselitz at 4:53 PM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


That's not true, alabamnicon. First, NAGPRA isn't the only law touching on these matters - ARPA and other related laws are also potentially in play, and if conditions are satisfied can mean this kind of sale is a criminal act in the US.

Second, NAGPRA does contain language about individual ownership - if you have an obtained under conditions spelled out in NAGPRA, and you try to traffic or sell it even within the US, you can be held individually liable for that as a crime.

Here's another thing from the Antiques Road Show.
posted by Miko at 4:55 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Or, what koeselitz said.
posted by Miko at 4:57 PM on April 13, 2013


Yeah, I'm starting to think people might be willfully misunderstanding me. I didn't say there weren't ethical concerns about how we treat human remains just because they're old, but I don't think it's reasonable to be "sad" or "offended" over the fact that 3500 year old human remains are displayed in a museum.

And, I think Egyptian artifacts should be returned to Egypt because they were in many cases illegally taken from the country of Egypt, in opposition to that country's laws. I don't think I need to consider the objects sacred or even particularly special (although many of them are fairly unique given their age) to think so.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 5:20 PM on April 13, 2013


I don't think it's reasonable to be "sad" or "offended"

I don't think it's reasonable to care what you think.

And, I think Egyptian artifacts should be returned to Egypt because they were in many cases illegally taken from the country of Egypt, in opposition to that country's law

And you get that's the same basis for objection to the events described in the post, yes?
posted by Miko at 5:34 PM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I am so happy they printed his name. He should forever be known for this. When people google him, this is what they should see.

Angwusnasomtaka will take care of herself. The buyer, seller and auctioneer are the ones to worry about.


Heh. We'll have to keep an eye out for stories about jackass art collectors being beset by crows.
posted by homunculus at 5:41 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


People are acting like Native Americans exist in this impenetrable bubble through which no communication is possible, but that simply isn't true. While their heritage and experiences are unique, they are part of the same broader American culture as the rest of us. We can all, you know, TALK about these things, and see one another's points of view, and understand the easy and the difficult problems. My husband works for a state historic preservation society, which were all established following the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and this is a thing that helps. Creating rules and guidelines for objects of historic and anthropological (and paleontological) significance, tasking particular state agencies with their enforcement -- that is a good thing. Most people in historic preservation are in it because they are deeply and passionately about the preservation of the history of past cultures and their artifacts. It matters to them a LOT. They've had 50 years to show good faith, and in a lot of places, they have done so. That means keeping promises about how Native American artifacts will be treated; fairly and uniformly enforcing rules and punishing violators; consulting with Native American leadership about touchy or unclear situations; not unduly hassling Native communities who want reasonable access to artifacts. (And it's not just Native Americans; different ethnic communities in the state may have strong feelings about particular cultural artifacts, or even from the other side of the world: Sweden sent a whole 747 full of Swedes a couple years ago to a state historic site here that was founded by Swedish immigrants 200 years ago when the site was in danger of losing funding and falling into disrepair, and the historic preservation agency treated them with the same good faith.) Over time, greater trust leads to easier, less-contentious situations. A lot of Native American communities WANT to see their historical artifacts studied, preserved, understood, woven into the broader fabric of American understanding of itself, and when historians and archaeologists can work with them as partners, it goes a lot better.

corb: "Isn't there any way to make sure that both sides can be recompensed? Stolen property is returned to the individuals it was stolen from, but financial recompense at market value be made to the people who bought it?"

Yeah, and there are a lot of ways that my husband's state agency tries to do this. If artifacts were bought (semi-)legally, back when standards about things were different, they might help arrange a donation, or perhaps assemble some high-dollar donors and foundations to purchase the items and immediately donate them to the state. They're not ever interested in condemning innocent buyers or receivers (shady dealers and grave robbers (there are those! with freaking backhoes!) are who they want to condemn and prosecute) -- they're interested in educating people and preserving the state's heritage. The law in general is pretty forgiving for individuals who stumble across something without knowing its importance; it's when you KNOW what you're doing wrong, or repeat the offense, that it starts getting shirty with you.

But we can't know how things will be 50 or 100 or 500 years from now, but we can try to do the best we can with what we know now, and our standards and laws as they are now and as they keep evolving as things change and we try to better.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:42 PM on April 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


I don't think it's reasonable to be "sad" or "offended"

Emotions are quite apart from what you call reason. I think you can learn to empathize with others, even if you do not agree with their point of view. It tends to benefit one enormously in one's interactions with other human beings to learn to do so. The lack of empathy is what is causing you to feel willfully misunderstood.
posted by Anitanola at 5:43 PM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Skwirl's comment about gravestones from Arlington National Cemetery made me think of how in some places in Europe you can find gravestones used as paving stones, by the deceased's own descendants. I kind of agree that everyone doesn't need to have the exact same reverence for objects that their creators did but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't treat them as significant and with respect for other reasons.

(And not having spent anywhere near as much time thinking about this as people who work in museums, if there is reasoning why we ought to factor in the beliefs of people who have vanished beyond any trace from extant human society—talking about the Ancient Egyptians there, not Native Americans—I'm entirely willing to consider that.)

As far as Native Americans being too thoroughly admixed with other populations to make any distinctions practical, that's ridiculous. One North American language after another is becoming extinct every year. The genocide is ongoing.
posted by XMLicious at 6:09 PM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


The good that will come from this is that the US has been negotiating a number of artifact related treaties with other countries. We have not been claiming any rights for the artifacts belonging to our native people. This will probably change as a result of tribal activision in this area.
posted by humanfont at 6:14 PM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Miko: "I don't think it's reasonable to care what you think."

That seems like a fantastic basis for a debate on a forum like this.

Miko: "And you get that's the same basis for objection to the events described in the post, yes?"

...And if you read carefully, I've never actually said that the items described in the post should not be returned. What I have done is question their status as "sacred" or not as having relevance to that. From what's been presented in this discussion, it seems very likely that the items were stolen, and they should be returned.

But you're probably not all that interested in that, since you've done nothing here than ascribe to me viewpoints I don't have, wildly exaggerate what I've been saying, or not bothering to read it at all.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 6:19 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anitanola: "I don't think it's reasonable to be "sad" or "offended"

Emotions are quite apart from what you call reason. I think you can learn to empathize with others, even if you do not agree with their point of view. It tends to benefit one enormously in one's interactions with other human beings to learn to do so. The lack of empathy is what is causing you to feel willfully misunderstood
"

Who am I failing to empathize with here, in the case of the 3500 year old human remains?
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 6:20 PM on April 13, 2013


That seems like a fantastic basis for a debate on a forum like this

But it is exactly what you are saying to people who profess a regard for remains or sacred objects.

If it's an inappropriate basis for debate, then perhaps you could refrain from continuing to offer it so frequently, as if it were an important point.

In other words, it doesn't matter whether or not you think the items are sacred. We have a set of laws that spells out a process for handling of objects that certain communities deem sacred - not in a willy-nilly way, but in a clearly established way. It's not a perfect set of laws, and there are a lot of edge cases yet to be discussed, but the fact that you like to consider yourself a rational being essentially has no bearing on the validity of these laws.

if you read carefully, I've never actually said that the items described in the post should not be returned

Nor have you said they should be. You've left that question open for most of the thread while challenging what you see as the basis for the claim they shouldn't. It's hardly irrational for me to interpret your comments as taking a position hostile to a claim of return, when the only thing you have voiced here is antagonism toward such claims, and not until your last few comments have you indicated any support for return of objects of cultural patrimony. Myinterpretation is entirely consistent with your comments up to that point.

My misunderstanding, then, is not "willful," but a function of your incomplete presentation of your position.
posted by Miko at 6:35 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


It must be "Piss on Native Peoples Day", I, of course did not get the memo, its why im late. But rather than stay here and fight for my peeps, Ima go to a nice Armenian dinner I was invited to. They LOVE Indians! They barely speak English but we have alot in common and get famously. RED POWER!
posted by SteelDancin at 6:39 PM on April 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


JZ: "Who am I failing to empathize with here..."

Us.
posted by Anitanola at 6:45 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


But we don't count because we're all of European descent operating under white man's burden who couldn't possibly have any sort of claim that a rational person could declare legitimate.
posted by rtha at 6:53 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


T'ansi, SteelDancin. Not sure why you think it's PONDD (any more than every day is..) The consensus here is the mask should go back to the Hopi.
posted by ocschwar at 7:04 PM on April 13, 2013


rtha "But we don't count..."

Is that why he is poking us with a stick?
posted by Anitanola at 7:31 PM on April 13, 2013


Miko: "
Nor have you said they should be. You've left that question open for most of the thread while challenging what you see as the basis for the claim they shouldn't. It's hardly irrational for me to interpret your comments as taking a position hostile to a claim of return, when the only thing you have voiced here is antagonism toward such claims, and not until your last few comments have you indicated any support for return of objects of cultural patrimony. Myinterpretation is entirely consistent with your comments up to that point.
"

Because to me, the discussion of whether the objects should be returned is not all that interesting. For the record, it seems the should be.

But I'm far more interested in a discussion about what (if anything) should be considered sacred, and what repercussions that specifically should have, which is why I've been trying to talk about that, and while some people (who also happen to be quite knowledgeable, like Eyebrows McGee) have given great answers and debated in good faith, I've repeatedly had extreme points of view ascribed to me.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 7:54 PM on April 13, 2013


Anitanola: "JZ: "Who am I failing to empathize with here..."

Us
"

Then I'm back to what I was wondering originally: Why does it make you sad and/or offend you to see 3500 year old Egyptian human remains on display in a museum (given that such a display respects the basic fact that these are human remains, obviously, which I think museums in general do).

To further explain why I think this seems strange: Not only are the remains obviously of dead people, but anyone who ever knew or had an emotional connection to those people are dead thousands of years ago. The religious context the burial was a part of is that of a religion that's also not been practiced for thousands of years, and one that would be quite alien to modern Egyptians, who are generally followers of Abrahamic religions.

So, I guess my question is, why is it you're offended, and on behalf of whom? I'm assuming you're not Egyptian, but even if you were, it's extremely unlikely you're a descendant or otherwise even remotely related to these people who have been dead for 3500 years.

And the wider question becomes: At what point do human remains (and cultural artifacts, for that matter) pass from being objects with emotional connections to real living people today, and become artifacts of the past, worthy of study and analysis more than veneration? As I've expressed, 3500 years (dead or culture dead) seems to be more than enough to me. 1000 years after a person's death or the end of a culture actually seems to be more than enough too. 500 years, even. Maybe even a few hundred.

There are interesting questions of ethics here.

(To specify, I know this doesn't apply to the Hopi, who are a living culture, and thus quite different from ancient Egyptians.)
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 8:04 PM on April 13, 2013


JZ: "But I'm far more interested in a discussion about what (if anything) should be considered sacred, and what repercussions that specifically should have, which is why I've been trying to talk about that"

Insofar as it does not infringe on the life or safety of those I hold in highest regard, I believe it is ethical to respect the intentions of the peoples and culture in question insofar as human remains and grave goods and other cultural patrimony are concerned.

It seems sad to me that people in our time have treated the remains and grave goods of the earlier Egyptians in a disrespectful manner, as 'loot' and displayed it, including the gold sarcophagus of a young pharaoh as treasure trove--and done so knowing their beliefs about burial and the afterlife.

I am not as interested in the questions of legality, except insofar as the laws reflect an increasingly respectful understanding of cultures other than our own, as I am in the ethical questions.

Religion is one of the human constructs employed to communicate solace to human beings faced with unanswerable questions about the as yet unknowable, particularly the mystery of life and death. Aesthetics and ethics are other such constructs for understanding ourselves as social beings. I would be quick to say that religious beliefs are more than a little problematical throughout the world today but I want to take care to be specific about my objections and not to ridicule people who hold beliefs, even when I think those beliefs are wrong and damaging. I am interested in changing hearts and minds, not insulting and alienating others. I didn't always think this way.

When I was 38 years old, I read a book written by Tony Hillerman, a mystery novel about a Navajo policemen, set on the Navajo reservation in the Southwest, and it caused me to become interested in Native American peoples. I continued to read his books for the next thirty years and, as well, I began learning about Native American history and culture. I even went back to school and studied philosophy, among other things. To improve my understanding of other cultures and my consideration of ethical questions has never ceased to occupy me since then, half my lifetime ago.

I do not think one can claim to be trying to discuss a subject and, at every turn, say of the people one is engaged with that their contribution to the discussion is 'silly,' 'ridiculous' or that it is 'unreasonable' to be sad or offended by disrespect to other cultures not one's own. To engage in discourse, one must not browbeat others who are also engaged.

As someone possibly old enough to be your grandmother, I have every confidence you have not learned everything--here you are saying as much--and you will change as time passes and you learn more. This does not mean you must become irrational or religious--perish the thought--but you can admit more complexity and, paradoxically, more simplicity in the way you approach others. It seems to me that each of us has tried to contribute to the discussion and none of us deserves your judgmental remarks in this forum.
posted by Anitanola at 9:04 PM on April 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think that the promotion of the concept of separation between ancient egyptians and the modern citizens is something created by the British and French plunderers as a means of justifying their looting. The line of logic seems to be: Don't worry we are not stealing from the "real" Egyptians, they died out years ago. These arab savages no nothing of the noble history of this place. I think the reality is the colonial masters just wanted to showcase their plunder, like the Romans parading in the forum after another conquest. The idea that the sphinx's beard sits in the British Museum is absurd, and the Elgin marbles should go back to Greece.
posted by humanfont at 9:09 PM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Isn't "Don't worry we are not stealing from the "real" Egyptians, they died out years ago" almost the exact same rationale you voiced up above when you said "The guys who lost and the guys who stole it are dead. Their children are mixed up with the general population to the point that we don't even know who would have a claim and who would have to give something up." or am I missing something?
posted by XMLicious at 9:29 PM on April 13, 2013


BTW I am not in favor of the sale. koeselitz, note that the illegal trafficking code applies only if the object was "the object obtained in violation of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act". Circling back to NAGPRA, yes I have read it. Is the object from federal lands? Was a federal agency or an institution receiving fed. funds involved? If not, its not a NAGPRA case. If you know of a NAGPRA case like this where an indiv. was successfully prosecuted under NAGPRA please share!
posted by alabamnicon at 10:17 PM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think so. The claims regarding the geographic origin of specific artifacts such as the Sphinx's beard are fairly straightforward.
posted by humanfont at 10:24 PM on April 13, 2013


That makes it sound as if, had any of the stuff plundered and looted in this case been physically attached to statues, well then it would have been a totally obvious situation and it wouldn't matter so much that the guys who lost are long since dead... but since it's a different kind of loot there are all these issues with DNA studies, y'see, and who even knows where to begin...
posted by XMLicious at 11:13 PM on April 13, 2013


Looted art is such a big topic that it's unsurprising that we can only get a handle on small sections of it, like wrestling a big octopus. If the Russians ever give back Priam's Gold to Berlin, Turkey will still be upset. Boundaries change, governments change. We can't rewrite the entirety of the past, but maybe we can make some things right. FWIW, I'm not entirely opposed to the idea of human bodies shown in museums, who at least these days tend to treat them respectfully, but I'm not against the idea of sending a body back to a group that claims it if they can show good evidence for why it should happen. I'm sure frivolous claims can occur, but that's why there's a process, and we just have to hope it works.

(This reminds me of the story a fellow registrar told, of reaching back into a dimly lit shelf and coming out with a dessicated human hand. Turned out to have been an old donation by a farmer who had it cut off in a farming accident, and then he donated it to the museum. Why the museum said yes is a puzzler. Fairly sure the little historical society that owned it never put it on display.)

As an aside, I would be surprised if, barring objects with really big significance, Egypt wants all of its stuff back. Having people around the world fall in love with it means you might be more likely to go to Egypt as a tourist. Plus, it's pricy to care for. It can stay in museums around the world and still benefit Egypt culturally. Just like the Hopi may be fine with certain pieces of their artwork in museums, just not this specific stuff because it's Elgin-Marble level important to them. Priorities exist which is why museums wait for a claim to be presented to them, evaluate that claim, and then hopefully work with the claimants to as fair, legal, and ethical a conclusion as they can manage.
posted by PussKillian at 11:27 PM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ocschwar: You callin me out as a "bad person" in Cherokee?! My, my, what big red balls you got there! Jus Kiddin! I'd respond in Okanagan, buttcha jus cant Google that shit, so it would be lost on everyone involved or interested. Uh, yeah, I get the consensus here, and it is much appreciated. I like it, and favorite my favorite comments. I had visited an earlier thread about some lost Amazonian tribes that sounded interesting to me, and saw some fool calling us "Noble Savages", chaffed my hide a lil bit to be honest. But I digress, I am just a little bit confused however on what exactly peeps like Joakim Ziegler are trying to Squeeze out of the discussion. Lets see, he care not for Cultural hokum 3500, 1000, 500, 300, years old. Or, dead or living cultures (zombie Indians? We would dig that!). He is trying to gleen solid "sacred" reasons and reprecussions of cultural objects? Like you want some scientifically, factual data, Data? Why we should care or really why "he" should care? Personally, I cant think of one Indian who would even bother to explain, justify, put in some essay stlye big worded bag of bullshit to try and get this guy to understand anything Sacred. For real dude. Just go forth into the future, dont look back! I do however fully appreciate informed comments about why these things are important. For all the reasons our kids and future generations to care and understand how we as humans have evolved. What people "thought" in their brains at various times in our lil blip of humanity on this big ol planet.
posted by SteelDancin at 4:26 AM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


The Hopi artifacts in question also have a particular cultural and geographic home. Loss and recovery, as with nazi art can be readily accomplished based on a consistent rule. Returning the lands in the Americas is a more complicated issue. Which descendents are entitled to a apportionment of the land? Where do you draw the borders between the hundreds of tribes when we don't have clear records? Many tribes are struggling for federal recognition. There are tribes with reservations in Oklahoma, who were matched there from other areas of the US. Do we blow up their new towns, confiscate their farms and march them back? The issue of land return is extremely complicated when compared to artifacts.
posted by humanfont at 6:04 AM on April 14, 2013



Ocschwar: You callin me out as a "bad person" in Cherokee?!


I gave you what I thought was a standard greeting in urban Anishinaabe. If I got my leg pulled, I'll chalk it off as a compliment.
posted by ocschwar at 12:05 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Returning the lands in the Americas is a more complicated issue. Which descendents are entitled to a apportionment of the land? Where do you draw the borders between the hundreds of tribes when we don't have clear records? Many tribes are struggling for federal recognition. There are tribes with reservations in Oklahoma, who were matched there from other areas of the US. Do we blow up their new towns, confiscate their farms and march them back? The issue of land return is extremely complicated when compared to artifacts.

Well, if your comments weren't meant to apply to the issue of the Hopi artifacts themselves, that seems much less unreasonable to me.

But on the issue of compensation for resettlement and other measures related to Native Americans being relieved of their land - although I agree that those matters are more complicated than return of portable religious relics, I don't think it helps to pretend that any of that is held by dithering over whether we're going to have to dynamite any towns to achieve a just outcome, which we wouldn't.

It stops far, far short of that - basically it never reaches the point where reparations would involve any costs proportional to the benefits accrued by the conquerors and their descendants and heirs. Returning just the mineral rights of an area to the descendants of people evicted to make way for settlers - even just part of them to the certain and identified descendants currently known - wouldn't involve moving anyone around but I'm not sure I've ever heard of that happening.

I don't have any comprehensive solution but the complexities you mention are not the actual obstacles that prevent reparations from going anywhere.
posted by XMLicious at 3:45 PM on April 14, 2013


If NAGPRA only applied to objects traded after 1990 it would be useless. So it doesn't. The language about 1990 is meant only to apply immediately to discoveries made after 1990. Most objects NAGPRA deals with have already been in collections (public private) for decades, even a century or more. NAGPRA applies to them.

If you know of a NAGPRA case like this where an indiv. was successfully prosecuted under NAGPRA please share!
Pueblo of San Ildefonso v. Redlon, 103 F. 3d 936 (10th Cir. 1996) - Makes clear that NAGPRA applies to Native American remains, funerary objects, and ritual objects held by federally funded museums regardless of their date of acquisition. The court rejected the museum's argument that because it had acquired the disputed article before 1990 that NAGPRA did not apply.
I don't know that an individual sale case has been brought up for NAGPRA yet, but there's precedent that the law is not construed to be date-limited to objects acquired only after 1990 for museums. The 1990 mention applies only to objects newly discovered after 1990. If there is no easily findable case regarding individual ownership, it's because NAGPRA case law is exceedingly young, and people are understandably unwilling t test its scope. I would not personally volunteer to be the individual who tested its applicability to individual owners as well. I think the law is sufficiently broadly written to condemn private sale of objects meeting hte definition of cultural material, and my colleagues and American auctioneers agree.
posted by Miko at 8:01 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


A very clear writeup dealing with the scope issues from the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association:
A determination that an object – even one that has circulated in the market for a long time - was found on federal or Indian land can make that object unlawful to sell, trade, or even donate to a museum. A virtually identical object from private lands may be perfectly legal to buy or sell. The fate of objects with unidentified origin remains to be seen, but it seems logical to assume that the predominant perspective of American law, “innocent until proven guilty” will remain intact and that only objects that can be shown to have originated on federal or Indian lands will not be lawful to trade in.

... Some material may be defined as illegal to sell or purchase under any circumstances or illegal to sell in interstate or international commerce. Many laws overlap, and several, including the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA), have provisions that extend their provisions to trafficking or excavation that violates any other state or local law. This has the potential to enormously expand the federal laws’ scope and effect. If an artifact is obtained in a manner that is unlawful under state or local laws – later purchase, sale, or even donation of the artifact may also become a violation of ARPA or NAGPRA.
Laws Designed to Regulate Trade in U.S. Cultural Property.
The most likely case to be brought under NAGPRA against an art dealer is not illicit digging or the grisly trade in human remains, but one involving trade in a “cultural item.” Under NAGPRA, it is a crime to knowingly sell, purchase, or transport for sale or profit any Native American cultural items obtained in violation of NAGPRA or any other provision of federal law.

The Act defines “cultural items” very broadly. “Cultural items” include "human remains" and "associated funerary objects" (objects that, as a part of the death rite or ceremony of a culture, are reasonably believed to have been placed with specific individual human remains either at the time of death or later in a ceremonial act and that are now in the custody of a museum) and also "unassociated funerary objects" (those funerary objects for which the human remains with which they were placed intentionally are not in the possession or control of a museum or Federal agency), "sacred objects," and "cultural patrimony."

Under the law, “sacred objects” are ceremonial objects needed by Native American religious leaders for the practice of Native American religions by their present day adherents. "Cultural patrimony" means an object having ongoing historical, traditional, or cultural importance central to the Native American group itself. “Cultural patrimony” can include objects that are legally possessed by individual Native Americans but cannot be sold or given away because the community regards the material as community rather than individual property.

Whether an item falls into the category of “cultural object” is necessarily subjective and in the eye of the beholder. As part of a prosecution or defense, tribal elders may be called in to give their expert opinion on whether an object is culturally significant or communally owned. In the case of many objects, the difference between an object subject to NAGPRA and one that is not may not be obvious or ultimately, empirically provable. For example, it may be based on theories of how the object was previously used or whether it was likely to have been blessed.

Even if a cultural item was originally sold before NAGPRA came into effect, the government can argue that it was embezzled by a tribal member who lawfully possessed it but did not have legal title to sell it (see 16 U.S.C. 641 below). Its resale post-1990 could also be a violation of NAGPRA. Here again, there would be issues of knowledge and possible confusion with apparently legitimate, lawful activity.

NAGPRA's ownership provision applies only to items found on federal or tribal lands after November 16, 1990: owners continue to hold legal title to collections of materials from private lands excavated at any time, up to today.
The Hopi claim is that the masks were stolen from tribal lands. So if this sale were proposed by an auction house in the US, the government could argue that the question of embezzlement applies and thus that the post-NAGRA offer for sale would be illegal.
posted by Miko at 8:28 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, Miko - the trouble I'm having with NAGPRA, on rereading it, is that I'm starting to think alabamnicon may be right. That's specifically (and only) because of the limitation in Section 12:
SEC. 12. SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN FEDERAL
GOVERNMENT AND INDIAN TRIBES.
This Act reflects the unique relationship between the Federal Government and Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations and should not be construed to establish a precedent with respect to any other individual, organization or foreign government.
So now I'm not sure. And I should apologize to alabamnicon for being a bit brusque before - clearly I don't know this act as well as I'd like to. Still, the literature you're quoting, Miko, is the same as everything I've ever read about NAGPRA - and it should be noted that, aside from Section 12, almost all of the act seems to lay out quite general property rights. Maybe I'm reading Section 12 wrong?
posted by koeselitz at 9:02 PM on April 14, 2013


There has been some progress on reparations under Obama. The resolution of Cobell vs Salizar seems like a big step forward.
posted by humanfont at 10:59 PM on April 14, 2013


If I'm reading that correctly it's one of the cases of redressing mistreatment that has occurred to some Native Americans and their descendants after they were relocated to reservations, rather than anything like reversing the Trail of Tears or figuring out who to give Plymouth back to.
posted by XMLicious at 11:21 PM on April 14, 2013


As long as people are talking about reparations, I want to point out that honoring treaty rights and tribal sovereignty is not reparations. Indian nations have a sovereignty that pre-dates the existence of the U.S. The U.S. received very real benefits (think lots and lots of land) when it entered into the treaties and it should carry out its reciprocal obligations.

I think reparations is also a good idea, but also one that is unpopular and politically unfeasible. I don't want to see honoring existing sovereignty and treaty rights being talked about as reparatoins because (1) the two ideas really are separate and (2) honoring existing rights could become even less common if it is thought of as reparations.
posted by Area Man at 4:48 AM on April 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


OK guys. I took a class dealing with this two years ago and have now gone back to exhaustively refresh my memory of the damn law by reading the entire regulatory history, just to be sure I am not blowing smoke.

Upshot: I'm not blowing smoke. If this sale were proposed in the US there would promptly be a governmental or tribal injunction against its going forward, and those who were involved could be held subject to criminal penalties. The regulations are written in such a way that sale of items likely to be the target of a cultural property claim is inadvisable and would leave you open to civil penalties.

It's useful for me to be well versed in this, so thanks, I guess. It is a bit chaotic so bear with me.

First, note that the Act we're all reading which establishes NAGPRA is just that: an Act of Congress. It establishes NAGPRA and defines a scope. There is a lot you can't find in the Act itself, because full detail was never intended to be in the Act. The Act is a declaration of the establishment of a new law and spells out the scope and process for doing same, but it is not the complete law. The actual drawing up of regulations for administering NAGPRA is assigned in the Act to the Secretary of the Interior and a committee. That committee has been meeting annually since 1991 and issues annual reports. They have made several amendments to the law in that time; it's a young piece of legislation, it continues to be tested by case law, and it grows. The current state of actual regulations is here, Title 43 (the Interior bill) Section 10.

The date limitation in NAGPRA is intended to do only one major thing: to create a clear attribution of ownership for objects newly coming to light which might otherwise have been in dispute. The date limitation does not apply to objects of cultural patrimony that changed hands before 1990 (that was upheld in the precedent linked above), as the date limitation is only meant to establish a clear system of attributing ownership where none had existed before. It is a way of taking out the "he said she said" aspect of disputes about objects that changed hands at an earlier time from now forward. Here's a flowchart of the ownership system created.

A stipulation like that can't logically be retroactive, though, as you couldn't require people who made a sale in 1970, say, to make sure that sale abides by the principles of a 1990 law. So 1990 is a "start date" which makes clear how the ownership falls by default. Objects found on federal or tribal land belong to the people whose lands those are. That is the central purpose of invoking the 1990 date. It's meant to remove the "finders/keepers" sort of "well, you didn't even know it was here and I dug it up" argument that has been a difficult problem in archaeology. Rather than let that be a dispute, this creates a default structure.

Of course, 1990 also kicks off museum and federal obligations, since again, the law didn't exist before that. But as I said above, if NAGPRA only applied to objects found since 1990, it would have pretty much zero bearing on most museum collections, and the thousands of objects repatriated since then would not have changed hands. The act in fact requires museums to inventory and publish their holdings for objects which changed hands at any time, and all are subject to repatriation claims, regardless of whether they came into the museum before or after 1990.

The central issue to this case (and what alabmanicon, I think, is forgetting to weigh) is the claim that the objects are stolen from tribal lands.

NAGPRA law expressly prohibits trafficking in objects stolen from tribal lands in Section 4.
SEC. 4. ILLEGAL TRAFFICKING.
(a) ILLEGAL TRAFFICKING.--Chapter 53 of title 18, United States Code, is amended by adding at the end thereof the following new section:
1170. Illegal Trafficking in Native American Human Remains 1170. Illegal Trafficking in Native American Human Remains and Cultural Items

"(b) Whoever knowingly sells, purchases, uses for profit, or transports for sale or profit any Native American cultural items obtained in violation of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act shall be fined in accordance with this title, imprisoned not more than one year, or both, and in the case of a second or subsequent violation, be fined in accordance with this title, imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.".
"Obtained in violation of the NAGPRA act" covers stolen items regardless of when they were taken.

SECTION 3, (b), covers items not covered under subsection (a) - which is the "clear establishment of ownership" section. This section is intended to cover items where the establishment of ownership is not clear. It clarifies objects changing hands by voluntary consent are not subject to regulation.

But in the case of this mask, right of possession was not obtained by voluntary consent.

In Sen. Inouye's presentation of the Act to Congress for funding, he included the following in his report:
The criminal penalties for sale, purchase, use for profit, or transportation for sale or profit of the human remains of a Native American shall apply to any Native American human remains, wherever they have been obtained, where the party does not have the right of possession to those human remains as defined in this Act. The Committee intends these provisions to act as a deterrent to unscrupulous dealers who traffic in Native American human remains or objects unlawfully removed prior to the enactment of this Act from Federal lands or tribal lands. The Committee believes that this section in combination with other penalties already enacted into law will help stem the black market trade in unlawfully obtained Native American artifacts and protect Federal or tribal lands from further looting.
The NAGPRA regulations refer prosecution for illegal trafficking to Title 18 - which is US criminal law, the same that applies to any stolen property, not a special part of NAGPRA. NAGPRA simply adds trafficking of Native American cultural property to the list of prosecutable offenses under Title 18. The rules specifically say in Section 4(b) that NAGPRA amends Title 18 to include this:

"(b) TABLE OF CONTENTS.--The table of contents for chapter 53 of title 18, United States Code, is amended by adding at the end thereof the following new item:

"1170. Illegal Trafficking in Native American Human Remains and Cultural Items."." Title 18.
To support my claim that the intent of NAGPRA is indeed to provide some basis for prosecutions under private sale, here also is comment from the comment period on the proposal for the final regulations, which indicates the interpretive lean of the entire law:
Comment 27: One commenter recommended including language in Sec.
10.2(e)(1) stipulating that ambiguities in determining cultural affiliation must be resolved in the favor of Indian tribes.

Our Response: The Act was enacted for the benefit of Indians, therefore the canon of construction applies that statutes are to be construed liberally in favor of the Indians, with ambiguous provisions interpreted to their benefit'' (Yankton Sioux Tribe v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, 83 F. Supp 2d 1047, 1056 (D.S.D. 2000)). These regulations are subject to the same canon of construction. The trust relationship and its application to all Federal agencies that may deal with Indians necessarily requires the application of a similar canon of construction to the interpretation of Federal regulations'' (HRI, Inc. v. EPA, 198 F.3d 1224, 1245 (10th Cir. 2000)). This principle of Indian law is so well-established, however, that the drafters consider additional regulatory text unnecessary.
All of this is more law than anyone probably needed on Monday morning, but in short, I've done a deeper investigation and concluded that the statement "this sale would be illegal under US law" is entirely supportable. The sale of stolen Native cultural property is illegal under Title 18, and the definition of cultural property is provided in NAGPRA. And 1990 doesn't mean anything about whether or not a claim is valid, it's just a date that establishes default ownership for anything found on Native or federal land. For objects found before that date, some other evidence of right to possession would be required.

If the owner suddenly had a change of plans and scheduled the mask for sale in the US, what would likely happen is that the Hopi would immediately file a repatriation claim against the owner or dealer, and also prosecute criminally under Title 18.
posted by Miko at 8:58 AM on April 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


Maybe I'm reading Section 12 wrong?

Yeah, the "special relationship" thing is boilerplate in all Indian affairs law and has only to do with the way in which the US government recognizes sovereign nations within its boundaries and has certain agreements with those nations and actually shares some processes and responsibilities with them in ways we don't do with other international governments. I found a slideshow that outlines it pretty well.
posted by Miko at 9:17 AM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


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