Beware Fear Mongering in Repatriation

Honor Keeler Author Final

by Honor Keeler

Over the course of the past year in my work in international repatriation, I have encountered an overwhelming amount of misinformation about repatriation that is being generated by individuals seeking to protect their profits and the values they have placed on our Indigenous relatives and cultural items (funerary objects, sacred objects, and cultural patrimony). In a German article that Edward Halealoha Ayau (Native Hawaiian, former Executive Director of Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawaiʻi Nei) and I wrote, we referenced the importance of recognizing: the humanity of our relatives, the respectful treatment of the items they were buried with, and the religious freedoms and cultural rights to sacred items and cultural patrimony from our communities. We specifically referred to the intentional retention of our Ancestors as “posthumous slavery”–for our relatives are being forced to make profits for museums, auction houses, universities, private collectors and others without their original consent, and without the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous communities. As we wrote in Injustice, Human Rights, and Intellectual Savagery: A Review, “[i]nternational Repatriation is both a cultural duty and a human right that arises from the historic progression of injustices perpetuated against Indigenous peoples.”

One of the most difficult things in repatriation is fighting racism and colonial mindsets. In the United States, Europe, and many other countries, there has been a worldwide and generational literary and pseudo-scientific colonial foundation that has excluded Indigenous voices. Initially, it served to support the development of legislation that stole our lands, took away our capacity under the law to make decisions for ourselves, took our children from us, and persecuted us for the practice of our cultures and religions. While many of these laws have since been extinguished and Indigenous rights have been affirmed, this foundation is still used to delegitimize our rights to repatriation.

Instead of collaborative work to do the right thing and return our Ancestors and cultural items, Indigenous Peoples are often met by academics, collectors, and officials threatened by our presence. These individuals are ready to engage in a power struggle to prove their authority over our culture and to assert their “ownership” of our people and our cultural items. Edward Halealoha Ayau refers to this as “intellectual savagery.”

Intellectual savagery has also produced a significant amount of fear mongering about the repatriation process among private collectors. However, the repatriation process from private collectors and the international community to Indigenous Peoples can be a collaborative process, and should not instill fear in any way. The following is a list of some of the general statements I have heard over the past few years that have been meant to engender fear about the repatriation process, along with counter-truths, and some tips to help ease the repatriation process for private collectors and international collectors and institutions.

  1. “Oppose international repatriation because it will kill the Indigenous art market and harm Indigenous artists.” This argument is anything but true. The contemporary Indigenous art market is thriving. Just take a look at the popular Santa Fe Indian Market, which boasts 150,000 visitors every year and it is growing! In addition, the art market was never affected by the national repatriation legislation passed in 1989 and 1990. Some tips: The art sold by the Indigenous artists who made the art obviously has a provenance and consent has been provided by the artist to sell his/her art. The above statement conflates the sale of Indigenous artists’ “art” with the SALE of Indigenous PEOPLE, FUNERARY items dug up from graves, and sacred items or cultural patrimony STOLEN from communities. There is an important difference. If you are concerned about a potential purchase from someone other than the original Indigenous artist, ask the seller to provide a provenance, and proof that “consent” was provided by the Indigenous artist. Red flags should be raised if an Indigenous artist cannot be identified, if there is not a clear provenance, and if the tribal community cannot be identified.
  2. “No one can tell the difference between Indigenous art and human remains or cultural items.”  I don’t know about you, but I don’t consider it “art” when the bones of people are nailed to a wall. If you cannot tell the difference between “art” and the remains of our Ancestors, there is something seriously wrong. Now, I can understand if someone has inherited cultural items or acquired them in some other manner and wishes to repatriate what should be repatriated, and they just do not know how to approach this issue.  Some tips: As mentioned in the last point, red flags should be raised if the Indigenous artist cannot be identified and if proven consent has not been provided. To find out whether a cultural item should be repatriated, it is best to directly contact the originating Indigenous community and ask respectfully about the remains or cultural item that you may have and the best way to identify whether it should be repatriated. To do so, please refer to the recommendations for collectors.
  3. “Tribal artists and tribal communities oppose repatriation.” This simply is not true. Please reference the many Intertribal Resolutions passed by the National Congress of American Indians, the Intertribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes, and the United South and Eastern Tribes, supporting international repatriation. In addition, the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a document composed by Indigenous Peoples across the world, supports repatriation (see Articles 11 and 12). While many Indigenous communities do repatriate, some choose not to, but this does not mean that Indigenous peoples oppose repatriation. It is the prerogative of the Indigenous community (and often has much to do with their cultural/religious beliefs) to engage in repatriation. A tip: Always beware of those who speak on behalf of Indigenous communities and Indigenous Peoples without the representatives of these communities and Indigenous peoples themselves present.
  4. “The only way that repatriation should be accomplished is if lists of Indigenous cultural items are made from each community and provided to us.” While it is up to each Indigenous community whether they wish to provide such lists, Indigenous Peoples also have a right to keep their religious and cultural traditions protected. In many communities, only certain people hold the cultural knowledge, medicinal knowledge, and cultural practice for a community. The choice to disclose this information should remain with the Indigenous community. Providing lists of sacred items and cultural patrimony and their uses should not be required. In fact, imposing this requirement on Indigenous Peoples may be a violation of their rights. It is important to remember that Indigenous Peoples are the experts of their own culture. Again, the best approach to repatriation is to contact the Indigenous community directly and consult with them.

My best piece of advice is: do not fear the repatriation process. The intent of current repatriation legislation and international repatriation is to encourage repatriation. Direct communication with Indigenous communities is an important first step, and engaging in meaningful consultations with them about the process is the key to a successful repatriation.


Honor Keeler is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. She is the founder of the International Repatriation blog, and currently works in Indigenous International Repatriation, sacred lands protection, and Indigenous human rights issues.




Red Alert: SAVE BEARS EARS, Last Day to Comment

Utah Dine Bikeyah
Photo credit: Utah Diné Bikéyah.

      On April 26, 2017, President Trump issued an Executive Order on the Review of Designations Under the Antiquities Act (EO 13792), which calls for a review of all Presidential National Monument designations and expansions of these designations made since January 1, 1996. Within 45 days of the Executive Order, Secretary of the Interior Zinke is to provide an Interim Report to the President, and within 120 days, Secretary Zinke is to send in the final report to the President of the United States. Review of National Monuments may present a significant threat to sacred lands contained within them, and could open these National Monuments up to energy development, public access, harmful recreational activity, and mining that could have severe impacts on historic, environmental, and cultural resources. Bears Ears National Monument was the only National Monument specifically mentioned in the Executive Order and, as compared to the other National Monuments, it was granted only a two week public comment period. Public comments on Bears Ears National Monument end May 26, 2017.


Angelo Baca Bears Ears
Members of Utah Diné Bikéyah discuss Bears Ears National Monument. Photo credit: Angelo Baca.

The Secretary of the Interior has been directed by the Presidential Executive Order to consider the following:

(i)    the requirements and original objectives of the Act, including the Act’s requirement that reservations of land not exceed “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected”;
(ii)   whether designated lands are appropriately classified under the Act as “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, [or] other objects of historic or scientific interest”;
(iii)  the effects of a designation on the available uses of designated Federal lands, including consideration of the multiple-use policy of section 102(a)(7) of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (43 U.S.C. 1701(a)(7)), as well as the effects on the available uses of Federal lands beyond the monument boundaries;
(iv)   the effects of a designation on the use and enjoyment of non-Federal lands within or beyond monument boundaries;
(v)    concerns of State, tribal, and local governments affected by a designation, including the economic development and fiscal condition of affected States, tribes, and localities;
(vi)   the availability of Federal resources to properly manage designated areas; and
(vii)  such other factors as the Secretary deems appropriate.
82 FR 20429-20430 (May 1, 2017).

Historically, no President to-date has ever taken away a National Monument designation or reduced the size of a National Monument. Legal experts question the authority that the President has under the Antiquities Act to reduce or revoke National Monument designations, claiming that this would require Congressional action.  Senator Udall (D-NM), the Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, tweeted on April 26, 2017, “The President doesn’t have the legal authority to rescind a national monument designation.” In his press release, Udall further stated, “As a member of the Appropriations and Indian Affairs committees, I will fight to protect and elevate these cherished monuments, and I won’t stand by if the Trump administration tries to open the door to selling them off to the highest bidder.”

     On May 5, 2017, the Department of the Interior (DOI) released a list of affected National Monuments. The National Monuments currently under review include the following:

  • Basin and Range (NV, 2015) (703,585 acres)
  • Bears Ears (UT, 2016) (1,353,000 acres)
  • Berryessa Snow Mountain (CA, 2015) (330,780 acres)
  • Canyons of the Ancients (CO, 2000) (175,160 acres)
  • Carrizo Plain (CA, 2001) (204,107 acres)
  • Cascade Siskiyou (OR, 2000/2017) (100,000 acres)
  • Craters of the Moon (ID, 1924/2000) (737,525 acres)
  • Giant Sequoia (CA, 2000) (327,760 acres)
  • Gold Butte (NV, 2016) (296,937 acres)
  • Grand Canyon-Parashant (AZ, 2000) (1,014,000 acres)
  • Grand Staircase-Escalanta (UT, 1996) (1,700,000 acres)
  • Hanford Reach (WA, 2000) (194,450.93 acres)
  • Ironwood Forest (AZ, 2000) (128,917 acres)
  • Mojave Trails (CA, 2016) (1,600,000 acres)
  • Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks (NM, 2014) (496,330 acres)
  • Rio Grande del Norte (NM, 2013) (242,555 acres)
  • Sand to Snow (CA, 2016) (154,000 acres)
  • San Gabriel Mountains (CA, 2014) (346,177 acres)
  • Sonoran Desert (AZ, 2001) (486,149 acres)
  • Upper Missouri River Breaks (MT, 2001) (377,346 acres)
  • Vermillion Cliffs (AZ, 2000) (279,568 acres)
  • Katahadin Woods and Waters (ME, 2016) (87,563 acres)
  • Marianas Trench (Pacific Ocean, 2009) (60,938,240 acres)
  • Northeast Canyons and Seamounts (Atlantic Ocean, 2016) (3,114,320 acres)
  • Pacific Remote Islands (Pacific Ocean, 2009) (55,608,320 acres)
  • Papahanaumokuakea (HI/Pacific Ocean, 2006/2016) (89,600,000 acres)
  • Rose Atoll (American Samoa/Pacific Ocean, 2009) (8,609,045 acres)

Tribes across the United States are calling for government-to-government consultations. At a press conference on May 3, 2017, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, consisting of representatives from the Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute, and the Pueblo of Zuni, spoke on the importance of protecting their Ancestral lands. Pueblo of Zuni representative and Co-Chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, Carlton Bowekaty, stated:

“I believe it is our duty to protect the traditional cultural knowledge that exists on Bears Ears National Monument. The reason why Bears Ears region is important to the Zuni People is because we have ancestral ties there. It is our belief that by reconnecting to our past, reconnecting with our language to these areas of cultural importance, that we bring balance to the world.”

Significant tribal cultural resources exist within Bears Ears–including sacred lands, burial grounds, medicinal plant growth areas, and many other tangible and intangible resources. These cultural resources would be in danger if the size of Bears Ears National Monument were reduced or designation was taken away.

Natasha Hale
Natasha Hale advocates for Bears Ears National Monument and co-management of the site among the tribes. Photo credit: Angelo Baca.

     The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition was established among the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute Indian Tribe, and Pueblo of Zuni to advocate for a National Monument designation and to protect the tribal cultural resources therein through co-management of the area. Working tirelessly to achieve these objectives, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition submitted a proposal and President Obama designated Bears Ears a National Monument in December, 2016. Now, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and the tribes involved are seeking government-to-government tribal consultations with Secretary Zinke during this federal review, which should occur in addition to  the comparatively short public commentary period that is open to the general public.

    Written public comments specifically on Bears Ears will be accepted until May 26, 2017 (see Federal Register Notice). All other written comments on National Monuments will be accepted by mail or online until July 10, 2017.  To submit comments, go to and enter “DOI-2017-0002” in the search bar, or mail comments to Monument Review, MS-1530, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1849 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20240.” The Department of the Interior seeks public comments on:

(1) Whether national monuments in addition to those listed above should be reviewed  because they were designated or expanded after January 1, 1996 “without adequate public outreach and coordination with relevant stakeholders;” and (2) the application of factors (i) through (vii) set forth above to the listed national monuments or to other Presidential designations or expansions of designations meeting the criteria of the Executive Order. With respect to factor (vii), comments should address other factors the Secretary might consider for this review.

For information on writing public comments please see the Federal Register Tutorial by the National Archives, Cornell University’s Regulation Room “What’s Effecting Commenting?”, and other resources provided by Turtle Talk. To read more about Bears Ears and its significance as a National Monument site, please see the information provided by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and Utah Diné Bikéyah, which also both provide opportunities to submit public comments.

Conveying the latest on Indigenous International Repatriation efforts from Indigenous perspectives.

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