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Machu Picchu at Dawn
Image via Wikipedia

 Machu Picchu artifacts housed at Yale University are making their way back to the Peruvian government. Sweden has been forced to return a 134 year told totem carving to the Aboriginal First Nation Peoples of Canada. The rich culture of the Dogon people of Mali has been sold to the highest (usually wealthiest) bidder–who then removes ancient materials that date back hundreds (even thousands) of years. The Hoonah Indian Association (Hoonah, Alaska) is assisting in the return of a sacred artifact of the Huna Tingit Nation. It is a carved wooden headdress that has been housed in the Denver Museum for nearly 45 years. The Khmer Civilization Foundation (of Cambodia) is calling for the Thai government to return holy temple artifacts. Almost a decade ago the remains of Saartje Baartman (derisively yet popularly referred to as the “Hottentot Venus”) were returned to the Khoisan people in South Africa from France 186 years after she died (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/1971103.stm). The Axum Obelisk stolen in 1937 by the Italians was returned to Ethiopia in 2002. The obelisk is more than 2000 years old.  It stands 80 feet high and is made of solid granite. The Italians were more than reticent about the return of the monument. They suggested that the pillar had become entrenched in Italian life and culture (almost a citizen of the country); and that even if they tried to return it, it was so old that it would be damaged in transit. Despite the delays, the monument that once stood in Rome’s Piazza di Porta Capena was returned to Africa.

The repatriation of antiquities does not take place in a vacuum. For many countries it has involved the efforts of UNESCO, Interpol, lawyers, lobbyists, the diplomatic corp, community activists, a host of government leaders, scholars and bloggers. Many forces have cited the historic illegal excavation, wholesale theft, and the loaned-and-never-returned items on display at some of the world’s most prestigious museums and galleries; not to mention the individual profiteering realized from the prohibited trade in national heritage treasures. At times the battle is fierce—and certainly has publically echoed the ongoing challenges and tensions among past conquerors over their once colonized nations. The language used is clearly more than symbolic reverence. Remember that around the globe many items of material and spiritual cultural value were destroyed as representations of idolatry and the antithesis of civilization. The descendants and supporters of the colonizers of old now maintain that the artifacts housed in their museums encourage patronage and stimulate tourism. Nations asserting their right to have sacred pieces returned, state emphatically that they want their artifacts because these objects engender a sense of pride, hope and reverence among the people. A nation’s cultural and national identity, in addition to the great spiritual significance of most relics, also fuels people and governments into demanding the tangible remains appropriated from their once great empires.

Those decidedly against the repatriation of national treasures suggest that the artifacts now belong to the world—not to distinct countries. The destruction and looting of West African artifacts by the British has brought impassioned social, cultural and legal questions about the right to keep and hold a nation’s relics or return them to their place of origin. As various cultural and commericial Iraqi items were recently returned (summer, 2011) to the government (See the video–no audio–on this at: http://www.dvidshub.net/video/120163/ice-repatriates-iraqi-cultural-items) we are reminded of the contemporary history and depth of wartime, colonial, and imperial plunder and indifference to the cultural heritage of people. The displaced physical objects are iconic reminders of centuries of intrusion, conquest and exploitation.

The battle of nations to reacquire their artifacts, relics, and remains is important to our study of history. The act of demanding what they feel is rightfully theirs represents the continuing declaration of hard fought independence, and their social, cultural and geo-political agency as nations with respect to the former colonizer. The demand for, and the physical return of, any item becomes the actualization of an important symbol—the confirmation of freedom. Liken to the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14), the relics of a nation give life to its people.

Dr. Katherine Bankole-Medina