Published on June 8, 2022 at 3:02 p.m.
A collection of 24 artifacts of Yaqui origin are being returned to the Rio Yaqui people in Mexico after being held by a Swedish museum for 100 years.
One such object is the sacred Maaso Koba, a ceremonial deer’s head. The dancer who wears it becomes the sacred deer and can travel from the physical world to the spiritual world of their ancestors, the Yaqui believe.
Yaqui and Mexican officials have been working for two decades to have the artifacts returned.
“For us, in ceremony for hundreds and thousands of years, (there is) the gravity of the deer dance – the Maaso dance – which contains the deer’s head – the Maaso Koba,” said the president of the Pascua Yaqui tribe, Peter Yucupicio. “And he is the only being who can be here in this world, which is the material world, and can travel to the spirit world, which is called the ‘Sewa Ania’ in Yaqui, and visit our ancestors. C is how important it is to us.”
The Maaso Koba and the other 23 pieces in the collection were acquired by the Museum of Ethnography in Gothenburg, Sweden, between 1934 and 1935 during scientific fieldwork in Mexico. Besides the stag’s head, the collection includes other ceremonial pieces and rattles.
On June 3, Francisco Eduardo del Río López, Mexican Ambassador to Sweden, and Ann Follin, Director General of the National Museums of World Culture, signed an agreement for the repatriation of the Yaqui collection. This return has been in the works for 19 years and it was a cooperative process, said Rafael Barceló Durazo, Mexican consul in Tucson.
“The request came from indigenous tribes, the Yaqui people located in both Sonora and Arizona,” Alfred Urbina, attorney general for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, told the Tucson Sentinel. “So this request had to be facilitated by the nation states, either the Mexican embassy to the Swedish embassy to the US government or the Swedish government. I think the international aspect of it has made it a bit difficult.”
Experts on how tribal governments interact with foreign countries under international law called the agreement significant.
“It’s rare for Indigenous peoples and Indigenous peoples’ lawyers to win victories. That’s one of the things that makes it a happy ending because we don’t often expect to win because of this history of conquest and colonization that took so much from Indigenous peoples, and the law usually doesn’t give back much to Indigenous peoples,” said Kristen Carpenter, director of the American Indian Law Program at the University of Ottawa Law School. University of Colorado.
“A really important part of this process was that the Yaqui people went into it with a peaceful mindset, with a cooperative mindset. I think they were inspired by the Maaso Koba himself” , said Carpenter, who was a North American member of the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from 2017 to 2021.
This group, along with the International Indian Treaty Council, played a vital role when the Yaqui took up the issue of the return of ceremonial objects internationally, she said.
The repatriation agreement underscores the importance of not only paying attention to national and international laws, but also Indigenous laws, Carpenter said.
In September 2007, the UN established the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Articles 11 and 12 of this document give the Yaqui the grounds for continuing the repatriation process. The declaration maintains that Indigenous peoples have the right to conserve and protect “past, present and future manifestations of their cultures”, including artefacts. Article 12 specifically calls for the right of states to “seek to allow access to and/or repatriation of ceremonial objects”.
The Yaqui had to overcome some challenges as they worked on a return agreement.
“I think the biggest challenge was they said at first it was given to them by a stag dancer and then they turned around and changed that to buy it for the museum as a collection,” Yucupicio told the Sentinel, explaining that tradition holds. the Maaso Koba should only be worn by a man, and such a revered item is not something to give away to a foreign collector.
“There are records of a ceremony that took place in the 1930s where the deer dance was taking place and they were having a celebration,” the tribe’s president said. “It starts out as if it’s not being used, but it’s being used. It was used in a ceremonial context and that’s what’s important to us.”
The Sami people, an indigenous group who live in northern Sweden and Norway, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia, played a role in persuading the Swedes to return the collection. Like the Yaqui who value the deer as having both spiritual and material importance, the Sami have a long tradition based on reindeer herding.
The Swedish government has finally understood the importance of the Maaso Koba and why he should be back with his people, and not in a plexiglass box far from home, Carpenter said. Items will be returned “with dignity and respect” to the people of Rio Yaqui in Mexico.
It’s still undecided where these items will be kept, but Yucupicio said they’ll make sure they’re stored properly.
“It’s very, very important that our young people, our people, don’t forget where they come from,” Yucupicio said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted Carpenter’s first name.
Bianca Morales is a reporter for cultural expression and community values at TucsonSentinel.com, and a member of the Report for America body supported by readers like you.
– 30 –