ZUNI PUEBLO, N.M. (AP) — A hand-carved figure held sacred by a Native American community in New Mexico has been returned to the tribe by an Ohio auction house, the company said.
The 15-inch wooden war god was returned to Zuni Pueblo authorities in late August after it was discovered in an estate collection that had been consigned to Cowan’s Auctions, the company said Thursday in statement.
The company’s director of Native American, prehistoric and tribal art, Danica Farand, said she recognized that the figure was from the Zuni Pueblo and began the process for its return, assisted by the Authentic Tribal Art Dealers Association.
“The Zuni recognize the war gods as living beings, and their removal from the shrine where they live represents an affront to Zuni cultural traditions,” Farnand said in the statement. “The war gods are sacred beings that deserve to be at rest. When I explained to our consignor their significance to the Zuni, they were happy and eager to return him to his home.”
Each winter, members of the tribe’s Deer and Bear clans carve two figures known as Big Brother and Little Brother. The twin gods are then ceremonially brought to a shrine on tribal land where they are left in an act to protect the tribe and the earth.
Over the years, many of the figures have been illegally removed and have made their way into museum and private collections in the U.S. and Europe. Zuni Pueblo has recovered more than 100 of the wooden carvings in recent years.
Zuni Pueblo Lt. Governor Carleton R. Bowekaty said in a statement that the return of the war gods — known as Ahayu:da — are for the protection and well-being of the entire world.
“Zuni and many other tribes continue to face difficulties in seeking the return of sacred cultural items held in private hands and collection worldwide,” he said, adding that the pueblo looks forward to developing its partnership with the art dealers association.
Robert Gallegos, a tribal art dealer in Albuquerque and a board member of the dealers association, said the group is committed to working with tribes, private collectors and dealers to help repatriate sensitive cultural property. He said establishing a level of trust between all parties helps resolve issues of cultural patrimony.
According to the auction house, the figure recognized by Farnand had been part of a 1930s-1950s traveling show of American Indian artifacts that operated in the southeastern U.S.
Its long-deceased owner, a man who claimed he was a Cherokee tribal member from Oklahoma, died with no immediate family and left the contents of the sideshow to a friend and fellow collector in Ohio. The war god was found in the friend’s estate.
The auction house said it has helped in the return of numerous religious masks and other objects for years.