Above: Acoma Pueblo
A piece of the larger problem Native Americans face in the United States is that they are seen as people of the past, which goes far to define coverage of them in the media, or the lack thereof. Rather than being seen as living breathing people fighting to survive in a nation that conquered them and sought to destroy their culture, they are often seen as closer to ancient civilizations. And that’s reflected in the treatment of Native American artifacts, which are sacred to living people but are also sold on the open market or displayed without concern for how it affects the descendants of the people who made them–or the descendants of the artifacts themselves as they can be bones and skulls. This is a good essay on the problem:
The U.S. has allowed its cultural protection laws to remain inconsistent since their creation, she said, whereas other countries, such as Mali, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, have blanket laws that protect artifacts no matter what the circumstance.
The Association on American Indian Affairs is now asking Congress to review and amend NAGPRA, and the Acoma Pueblo Tribe is hoping to push through more legislation, the Safeguarding Tribal Objects of Patrimony, or the STOP Act, aimed at stopping the export of cultural items out of the country. The lack of such laws can lead to instances such as the sale of sacred and historical Hopis and Acoma Pueblo artifacts, for hundreds of thousands of dollars, at a French auction house in 2016.
“The whole world condemns the destruction of Palmyra by Isis,” Kurt Riley, governor of the Acoma Pueblo, told reporters ahead of the sale. “The National Geographic’s cover story this month is about tomb raiders looting the world’s ancient treasures. These things are happening while they are also happening in the United States with regard to the plundering of native cultures.”
When it comes to the Indigenous remains and artifacts found in museums, private collections and government institutions across the U.S., we often don’t treat them like the gravesites they are.
“It’s kind of odd how American culture has just taken over all things that it thinks best for ‘inferior Indian people,’” O’Loughlin said. “We will call it, we will label it, we will name it, we’re going to own it and possess it and put it in boxes and take pictures of it. It’s something different than how we would treat our own items that are sacred or our own burial remains.”
This should be a major part of our discussion of race in our country. But it’s not because contemporary Native issues rarely get much attention.