Senior bow priest Perry Tsadiasi bends down to embrace the long, brown-bagged bundle lying on the table.
Clutching it to his cheek, Tsadiasi whispers a prayer in the gentle, confidential murmur of a parent comforting a lost child.
The religious elder takes the bundle in his arms, slowly circles the room while repeating the chant and pauses at the doorway, where an offering of sacred cornmeal has been strewn in his path. The purification rite is complete.
“We’re leaving now,” Tsadiasi tells the twin war gods in the ancient language of Zuni Pueblo. “Go with a beautiful day.”
After decades in the hands of private collectors, two more Ahayu:da are on their way home.
In the centuries-old religion of the Zuni Indians, the carved statues are living supernatural beings responsible for the welfare not only of the tribe, but of the entire world.
This recent return of the stern-visaged war gods at the Museum of New Mexico’s Laboratory of Anthropology is more than a homecoming. It marks the end of a patient 13-year effort by the Zunis to recover 67 carved war gods known to have been held in 35 U.S. museums and private collections. (Others are known to be in European collections.)
The Zunis’ persistence and the novel legal arguments they have raised have set a precedent for other tribes at a time when many American Indians are seeking a return of burial remains and sacred objects that have found their way into other hands.
Since 1978, the tribe has received war gods from collectors as diverse as the estate of the late Andy Warhol and the Tulsa Zoo. The Brooklyn Museum had 13 in its possession, while the Denver Museum of Natural History had six.
“The war gods weren’t taken with the permission of the Zunis,” says Tom Sansonetti, solicitor general for the Department of the Interior, who traveled from Washington to witness the repatriation ceremony. “The war gods are not owned by any one person. They’re communal property.”
Under common law, he says, “possession of any of the war gods is possession of stolen property.”
That argument so far has not been tested in full-blown litigation, as one collector after another has yielded to polite but insistent Zuni requests to return them.
The most recent two to be returned were held for 16 years by Lois Flury, a Seattle art dealer and collector who says she paid $3,500 for the pair--estimated to be 25 to 50 years old.
She says she bought them while she was getting acquainted with American Indian art. “I responded to the beauty of them,” Flury explains. “I did not know that they were pieces that were sacred and should not have left Zuni.”
In the mid-1970s, shortly after buying the pieces, Flury contacted several museums to learn more about the war gods. Alerted by her inquiries, FBI agents asked where she had gotten the pieces. But she later was told by the FBI that she could do with them as she pleased. “I elected not to sell the pieces, but to keep them until an appropriate time,” she says.
She did not hear from the tribe until last fall, when the solicitor general’s office formally requested their return on the tribe’s behalf.
Recovery of the war gods has been a matter of great urgency for the Zunis, a tribe of about 9,000 living on a reservation that sprawls across 420,000 acres of wind-swept pinon and juniper-studded mesas in western New Mexico.
“During times of confrontation several centuries ago, they were the ones from whom the Zuni warriors would seek strength and wisdom to overcome their enemies,” says Joseph Dishta, who as tribally elected head councilman accompanies bow priests in retrieving war gods.
“We believe in what the makers believe in,” adds the tribe’s lieutenant governor, Pesancio Lasiloo, one of a six-member delegation. The gods have power “to keep the world safe, so it won’t be destroyed by water, fire or anything.”
Two war gods, known as Big Brother and Little Brother, are carved each winter by members of the tribe’s Deer and Bear clans. Hewn from native woods such as pinon and cottonwood, they have long, cylindrical bodies, pointed heads and stoic, highly abstract features. They are ritually decorated with carved umbilical cords and feather fetishes.
Standing in rows in open-air shrines on hillsides and mesa tops around the reservation, the war gods are left exposed to the wind, the sun and the rain. The Zunis believe that they do their work as they weather and eventually disintegrate.
But over the last century, many war gods have disappeared, some taken by anthropologists seeking to preserve Zuni culture, others sold to collectors by tribal members willing to trade the sacred objects for cash. The lure of money has been strong: Prized for the strength and simplicity of their design, war gods have fetched as much as $40,000 apiece from collectors.
From the Zuni perspective, the gods’ return benefits those who have been holding them as much as it does the tribe because war gods are said to have a penchant for mischief if they are in the wrong hands.
Repatriation of this pair of war gods closes a chapter, but the Zunis remain committed to regaining others that may be hidden in collections in the United States and Europe.
Although a 1970 UNESCO convention provides for the return of cultural property between nations, no provision specifically requires the return of sacred objects to the tribes that made them, according to Sherri Burr, a University of New Mexico professor who specializes in international law.
If such a provision existed, it might have disastrous implications for museums and their collections of native objects from around the world, she points out.
The heart of the matter is the task of creating a clear legal definition of “cultural property,” which, unlike most common-law forms of property, is both communally held and inalienable, she says.
In the United States, a growing body of state and federal legislation has tried to regulate the sale of Indian artifacts. The federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which took effect last November, requires museums to return burial remains and funerary objects, although the law excludes most private collectors.
Meanwhile, a few tribes have followed the Zuni example in seeking the return of cultural artifacts not covered by federal law. The Iroquois of Upstate New York, for example, have successfully sought the return of wampum belts.
The Zunis have not had to resort to litigation, honoring a tribal tradition that says one must ask for something four times politely before turning to adversarial means. At first, some museums, imbued with the ethic of preservation, resisted returning the war gods on the grounds that they would be left to decay in their shrines, but Zuni persuasion prevailed.
“It was their noncombative approach to these museums which allowed the museums to deal with it with an open mind,” says E. Richard Hart, director of the Seattle-based Institute of the NorthAmerican West, a nonprofit research group that has worked with the tribe for the last 20 years.
Given the combined effects of the legislation and the Zunis’ success at winning repatriation, there is not much of a market for war gods in the United States. Yet, as recently as December, someone stole three war gods from a shrine on the reservation.
Flury believes that war gods still are being traded abroad. “Someone indicated that in Europe these pieces might have a value of between $80,000 and $100,000 each.”
The Zunis are celebrating in the cool, high-ceilinged library designed in Pueblo Revival style at the Museum of New Mexico. A few wear jackets and ties; others sport Western-style shirts and ornate silver bolo ties inlaid with turquoise.
The Zunis have held repatriation ceremonies at the museum for years, in part because curator of ethnology Edmund Ladd is a Zuni. In Zuni tradition, the war gods must be met outside the reservation for purification by a bow priest before they can be returned, Ladd says.
Purification duties often fall to Tsadiasi, who, as one of the four remaining bow priests at Zuni, has presided over many repatriation rites. He is a tiny man wearing an oversized patterned sport coat and gray lizard-skin boots. In an inside pocket, he carries a beaded leather pouch containing cornmeal.
Tsadiasi and Ladd carefully unwrap and examine the war gods to make sure they are intact. Conferring in Zuni, they rewrap the deities and place them in a long brown bag secured by drawstring.
Flury and the tribal officers sign documents affirming receipt of the war gods. Then Tsadiasi begins the solemn process of purifying the war gods and bringing them home.
He performs the work with deliberation. After leaving the museum, he walks alone across the parking lot--the long brown bundle raised before him--to a waiting car.
When the four-hour trip to the reservation is completed, the Zuni delegation will be met by more bow priests, who will perform another ceremony.
The gods will then be placed in the special shrine, a small stone enclosure roofed with a tangle of steel and barbed wire, designed to keep the returned deities secure.
“It’s like a child that has been lost, out wandering around, finally returned to his homeland,” says Dishta.