The Role of Immovable Sites in International Repatriation

By: Dominic Henry

As the return of sacred items and Ancestors continues to empower cultural rights and indigenous sovereignty, it is also important to keep in mind that part of this empowerment also involves maintaining burial sites and sacred places. The conservation of our Indigenous heritage sites is vital within the frameworks of international repatriation.

There are currently thousands of sites manifested within the natural landscape, archaeological and historic, which portray the diverse influx of America’s First Peoples. Earthenwork architectural features, vision quest sites, rock shelters and petroglyph areas are only a fraction of Native places represented within the Western Hemisphere. Moreover, natural landscapes, such as rivers and mountains, also symbolize important sacred spaces rooted within Indigenous cultural ideologies. Today, many tribal communities still utilize their Ancestral homelands and sacred sites for important cultural functions to sustain cultural practices through prayers and ceremony. The natural environment as a whole, tends to also be at the cornerstone for communication with spiritual realms; and nature herself  is also a living being. Tribal communities have their own Indigenous knowledge that defines their place in the universe. Indigenous Peoples have and still pray to mother earth for thanks and balance. The Ancestors or cultural items from these places are a vital part to the integrity of our sacred places in Native America.

Ancestral Puebloan architecture. Once part of a larger architectural room chamber at Tsankawi Pueblo, near White Rock, New Mexico. Built around 1400 A.D. Site is part of Bandelier National Monument-National Park Service. Photo Credit: Dominic Henry
Documenting the Puebloan Landscape, original foot walkways at Tsankawi Pueblo-National Park Service (Dominic’s shadow). Photo Credit: Dominic Henry

The Native Peoples of the Andes call Mother Earth Pachamama, and the Navajo, Nahasdzáán.

A view of Dibé Nitsaa (Big Mountain Sheep or Obsidian Mountain) from Mesa Verde National Park. Navajo Sacred Mountain to the North and protector of the porcupine, near Durango, Colorado (La Plata Mountains).
Photo Credit: Dominic Henry

When tribes were forced off their lands, many cultural practices were impacted by this relocation, and much looting of artifacts occurred during this era and continues into the present-day. Places once used for ceremonies, prayers, living or hunting grounds, were replaced with development or new land boundaries, without reverence for the importance of these sacred places. Recent policies and legislation over the past twenty-five years have allowed Native American tribes to return to ancestral lands that now reside on land owned by the federal government for religious and cultural purposes. One such place is Devils Tower where current federally recognized Plains region Nations (Lakota, Dakota, Crow, Cheyenne) are allowed to perform sacred ceremonies on the premises. These ceremonies are typically closed to the public. Other places like Bandelier National Monument allow traditional plant gathering for Pueblo communities. Although these locations are preserved today, it still has not replaced the disconnection experienced by Native Peoples and the gravity of religious and ceremonial consequences experienced by colonialism. Internationally, Indigenous Peoples still face difficult circumstances, like the Kayapo of the Amazon who are negotiating with the Brazilian government and fighting to preserve their Native homelands, the rainforest. Despite the various challenges in this arena, every element of success strengthens cultural sustainability for future generations.

An exhibit showcasing Moche architecture and portrait vessels at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo Credit: Dominic Henry

By and large, international repatriation encomposses cultural items, the preservation of Indigenous places and cultural resources through on-going policies and repatriation. Sacred items, structures, and landscapes are all inter-connected, and rely on one another for cultural continuity. The voice to push the Movement forward will only become stronger and heard through ongoing collaboration and active engagement.

Thus, Indigenous sites are sacred spaces that are still very much alive and within the scope of the human rights issues surrounding international repatriation.

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