Reviewed by Elizabeth Sackler on February, 2008


In the United States of America, First Amendment Rights[1] are one of the keystones of our democratic republic. However, during the two hundred years after the American Revolution the first Native Americans fought disease and cultural genocide resulting from the federal government’s racist policies. Ceremonial dances were banned and punishable by incarceration and death, American Indian children were kidnapped and sent to boarding schools to “take the Indian out of the man”, and the majority of tribes were moved from their homelands to reservations. American Indian items, both utilitarian and ritual objects, moved into the hands of traders, collectors, and into museum cases. Auction blocks and dealer’s shelves were replete with objects as a result of theft, pawn, and sale, under duress. One of the more appalling exploits began in 1868. The Smithsonian Institution’s anthropologists set out to ‘prove’ the inferiority of American Indian Peoples and began the “Cranial Studies.” This resulted in decades of mass murder and grave robbing, decapitation, boiling, weighing and shipment of skulls by train to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.[2]

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed into law on November 16, 1990 and requires federally funded institutions to repatriate ceremonial material, cultural patrimony, human remains, and associated grave goods. (see Mending the Circle, A Native American Resource Guide)


In the Spring of 1992, Sotheby’s “Fine American Indian Art” sale catalogue featured three katchina masks. Representatives from the Hopi and Navajo Nations contacted Sotheby’s and explained that the two Hopi Kachinas and Navajo Yebeiche listed for sale were not art, but spiritual ‘friends’, as the Pueblo Peoples call them. These sacred messengers of spirit are essential for the continuance of life’s cycle. The Hopi’s requests for the removal of the Kachinas from the upcoming auction fell on unsympathetic ears. Sotheby’s responded that as a private corporation they are not bound by NAGPRA. Though legally accurate there are ethical questions surrounding the sale of spoils of war and religious items needed by living cultures. Newspapers and radio stations championed the Hopi and Navajo, and the drama was followed by the media.

Having become aware of the Hopi and Navajo requests, and understanding the distinction between art and spiritual items, I attended the “Fine American Indian Art” auction at Sotheby’s on May 21, 1991 and purchased Ahola, Koyemsi, and Yeibeche to return them to the Hopi and Navajo Nations. As the successful bidder state and federal law recognized me as their “rightful owner,” but I was, in my mind, the conduit for their return home.

That event was the beginning of my sincere commitment to the repatriation of ceremonial American Indian ritual items. At the time I was unaware that my action would be a catalyst for change.


On May 22, 1992, the New York Times headlined the article: “Buyer Vows to Return Masks to Indians,”[3] where I explained the distinction between art and sacred objects needed by a living culture and should neither be bought nor sold. The New York Times article went out over AP wires and dozens of newspapers across the country ran the story. I received scores of letters and faxes of support and gratitude from Native and non-Native people, alike. An opportunity was at hand for an intercultural partnership to address the art market’s exploitation of Native Peoples.

The support and enthusiasm of those who contacted me indicates peoples’ eagerness to participate in the righting of wrongs. NAGPRA had set standards in the public sector and provided the framework for a sea change in the private sector.

The American Indian Ritual Object Repatriation Foundation began its work as a not-for-profit organization in 1992 and received its Absolute Charter from the State of New York Regents on November 5, 1999.

The Repatriation Foundation has assisted as a conduit and a facilitator in the return of scores of ceremonial items and grave goods from the private sector to nations, clans, societies, and individual leaders for fifteen years. When our work began, NAGPRA was in its infancy and museums needed assistance in contacting tribes. In 1996, the Repatriation Foundation published Mending the Circle, A Repatriation Resource Guide, the definitive source on NAGPRA, including repatriation policies of the National Museum of the American Indian, and the National Museum of Natural History, essays by Native American museum professionals provide insight into museum practices, and strategies for the retrieval of sacred material from the private sector.


By 2003, tribal repatriation offices were in place, and museum’s registrars and curators were versed in and implementing NAGPRA. Calls to the Repatriation Foundation became intermittent, auction houses consigned items with care, and world-wide repatriation demands bolstered the repatriation of American Indian ceremonial materials in the United States. In one decade much was accomplished.

Some dealers and auction houses though aware that the sale of certain items is sacrilegious to American Indians nevertheless continue to participate in this lucrative business. Repatriation provides opportunities yielding greater rewards than financial gain; the participation in the re-culturalization of a people who have suffered from five centuries of cultural genocide is but one.

Some anthropologists argue that it will never again be possible to assemble a comprehensive American Indian collection. To them I ask: which is more important an all-inclusive collection or the continuation of the lifeways of a living culture?

How long will repatriation take? Perhaps forever. Each return must be done with diligence, care, and respect. The process is arduous but museums and Native Nations are underway.


The Repatriation Foundation continues its fight for ethical standards in the art market and supports the struggle of American Indians to continue their spiritual lifeways.

It is my hope that by keeping the electronic flow of information available here, we will continue to participate in the repatriation movement.

[1] Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

[2] For additional information see the “Introduction” by Suzan Harjo in Mending the Circle: A Native American Repatriation Guide (New York: American Indian Ritual Object Repatriation Foundation, 1996) which can be downloaded online, here. If used as a source, please site the foundation and the title and publishing information.

[3] Buyer Vows to Return Masks to Indians,” New York Times, May 22, 1991, C11.