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.




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