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WED: NM foundation returns indigenous artifacts, Pope dons headdress, prompts controversy +More

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Eric Gay/AP
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AP
Pope Francis dons a headdress during a visit with Indigenous peoples at Maskwaci, the former Ermineskin Residential School, Monday, July 25, 2022, in Maskwacis, Alberta. Pope Francis traveled to Canada to apologize to Indigenous peoples for the abuses committed by Catholic missionaries in the country's notorious residential schools. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

New Mexico foundation to return Indigenous items to Mexico — Terry Tang, Associated Press

Small, ancient sculptures that have been gathering dust in an Albuquerque storage box are returning home to Mexico, where they are intertwined with the identity of Indigenous communities.

The Albuquerque Museum Foundation is celebrating the repatriation of the dozen sculptures in a ceremony Wednesday. The local Consulate of Mexico will accept Olmec greenstone sculptures, a figure from the city of Zacatecas, bowls that were buried with tombs and other clay figurines that date back thousands of years.

The event comes as Native, Indigenous and African communities have pushed for museums, universities and other institutions to repatriate items that are important parts of their cultures and histories.

Foundation President and CEO Andrew Rodgers said returning the sculpture that have sat in storage for 15 years was the right thing to do. Even the foundation's board agreed. But some outside their organization had a different idea.

"We did encounter a couple people who suggested 'Oh you should just sell these ...'They may not be worth a ton so just keep them' or 'Mexico doesn't really care about this kind of stuff,'" Rodgers said.

Mexico, however, very much cares.

"We appreciate and recognize actions taken by the Albuquerque Museum Foundation to voluntarily return these archaeological pieces back to the Mexican nation," Consul of Mexico Norma Ang Sánchez said in a statement. "They are important elements of memory and identity for our native communities, and we are pleased they will be recovered."

The effort to research the artifacts' origins began over five months ago when they were discovered sitting in a box in storage. Rodgers' assistant obtained the original appraisal form from when a donor gifted them in 2007.

"Immediately alarm bells started going off in our heads" when they saw the label "pre-Columbian," Rodgers said.

Playing internet detective, Rodgers found the original dealer. A New York woman in her 90s still had the original notecards from the items' sale to the donors in 1985. She said they either were purchased on a roadside in Mexico or from dealers in New England.

"I don't think anybody had mal intent. I just think there was not much clarity or much transparency in that sort of a practice 30, 40, 50 years ago," Rodgers said.

Museum archaeologists at the University of New Mexico and Emory University in Atlanta authenticated the objects before talking with the local Mexican consulate. The Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History, which will end up with the figures, believes they were made in western Mexico between 300 and 600 B.C.

There has always been a desire to reclaim pre-Hispanic culture and artwork, according to Tessa Solomon, a reporter for the online publication ARTnews who has covered dozens of stories on the topic.

When Andrés Manuel López Obrador became president of Mexico in 2018, his administration made retrieving artifacts a priority. Culture Minister Alejandra Frausto Guerrero has tried to stop sales of cultural items at auction. The efforts spawned a social media movement called #MyHeritageIsNotForSale. It's estimated more than 5,500 archaeological objects from Mexico have been recovered in the last few years.

"(Mexican officials) definitely have the most concerted effort to stop auction sales of these pieces," Solomon said. Placing these objects in a European or American gallery or museum is "creating these gaps in the art history of these places that is difficult to fill. It shouldn't be up to other countries to create these histories."

Campaigns to restore artifacts and artwork to a country or a people are happening worldwide. The U.S. Department of Interior is weighing changes to a federal law that ensures the repatriation of Native American remains and sacred objects. The proposed revisions include more clarity, specific deadlines and heavier penalties for violating the law.

Indigenous groups from Canada are calling on the Vatican Museums to give up tens of thousands of artifacts and art. The Vatican says the feathered headdresses, carved walrus tusks, masks and embroidered animal skins were gifts to Pope Pius XI.

Germany and Nigeria signed an agreement on July 1 to facilitate the return of hundreds of artifacts known as the Benin Bronzes that the British stole from Africa over a century ago. Hundreds of bronzes were sold to museums all over the world. The Smithsonian had 29 at its National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. They will go back to the Nigerian government.

Other Smithsonian museums have been returning objects to their rightful owners for more than three decades, said Kevin Gover, undersecretary for museums and culture. Determining who owns the items can be a lengthy process.

"Some of these things, remember, are often very old," said Gover, a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma. "So it does require a great deal of research to be sure we understand exactly what it is and exactly how it was acquired ...I 'm impressed that this Albuquerque Museum (Foundation) had it done in six months."

The racial reckoning that started in the U.S. in 2020 likely increased the number of calls for reclaiming antiquities and artwork. In April, the Smithsonian enacted an "ethical returns policy" that requires a look at how an object came into the institution's possession.

Museums and other art venues must face they are in an age where they will be judged by their actions, not just their artwork.

"The public is sort of expecting more from these institutions," Gover said. "This is part of maintaining that trust, being able to say we came into possession of this object in an ethical way, in a fair way."

Rodgers, of the Albuquerque Museum Foundation, is taking the ordeal as a key learning opportunity.

"This experience has especially given us exposure to this world and a better understanding," he said. "So I think we're certainly much better prepared to make sure that we never accept anything we shouldn't."

Pope in headdress stirs deep emotions in Indian Country — Anita Snow, Associated Press

It was a stunning image: Pope Francis briefly wearing a full Indigenous headdress, its rows of soft white feathers fastened in place by a colorful, beaded headband after he apologized for the Catholic Church's role in Canada's "disastrous" residential school system for Indigenous children.

Chief Wilton Littlechild, a residential school survivor himself, gave Francis the headdress Monday, placing it on his head amid cheering by an audience in Maskwacis, Alberta, that included many school survivors.

The Vatican and the pope clearly appreciated the gesture: Francis kissed Littlechild's hands after receiving the headdress, something he has done in the past as a sign of respect for Holocaust survivors, and has done on this trip for residential school survivors.

The Vatican obviously understood the symbolic significance of the moment, putting the photo on the front page of the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano under the headline "I humbly beg forgiveness."

Headdresses historically are a symbol of respect, worn by Native American war chiefs and warriors. For many Plains tribes, for example, each feather placed on a headdress has significance and had to be earned through an act of compassion or bravery. Some modern-day Native American leaders have been given war bonnets in ceremonies accompanied by prayers and songs.

Yet this revered regalia also represents an image that has been co-opted from tribes in popular culture for decades, feeding stereotypes in everything from Hollywood films, to fashion runways to Halloween costumes.

Some members of Indigenous tribes said they found the gesture incongruous with the past transgressions at church-run schools that Francis apologized for.

Russ Diabo, a member of the Kahnawake Mohawk tribe in Canada and an Indigenous advocate and policy analyst, described the scene as "pageantry" and the pope's statements as "facile."

Diabo said on Twitter it was "the Catholic Church and Canada collaborating in creating a mythology for a shared 'Reconciliation' agenda narrated by prominent federal collaborators/residential school survivors!"

"I have so much to say about this, and all of it negative," tweeted Joe Horse Capture, vice president of native collections and curator of Native American History and Culture at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.

"I am practicing 'If you can't say anything positive, don't say anything at all' mantra. But I'll be honest, it's difficult!," added Horse Capture, a member of the A'aniiih Nation.

More than 150,000 Native children in Canada were forced to attend government-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes and culture. The aim was to Christianize and assimilate them into mainstream society, which previous Canadian governments considered superior.

The discoveries of hundreds of potential burial sites at former schools in the past year have drawn international attention to the schools in Canada and their counterparts in the United States.

Leading U.S.-based Indigenous news outlet ICT made a deliberate decision to not make the war bonnet a focus of their papal visit coverage.

"When I saw the headdress being placed on the Pope, I immediately thought 'absolutely not.' We are not running that photo," said Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, editor of ICT, formerly Indian Country Today. "It distracts readers from the Pope's apology and survivors' stories who sat in those chairs listening to his every word. Something they've been waiting for, for decades.

"It creates unnecessary noise regarding Indigenous peoples' choices where the real scrutiny should be placed on the Pope and that entire institution."

Maka Black Elk, executive director of Truth and Healing at Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, described the scene on Twitter as a "#toosoon moment."

"The discourse around the #PopeFrancis headdress is unfortunate," wrote Black Elk. "He did not request that. It wasn't his fault. But it's also clear the givers did not consider how it would make other Indigenous people feel."

Black Elk said later in a telephone interview that the mixed reaction to the headdress being placed on the pope's head "reflects the reality of native people and our need for more dialogue" about the past.

"I do think that Chief Littlechild felt it was important to honor this moment, and this was a significant moment," he added.

A spokeswoman for Littlechild didn't immediately respond Tuesday to a message seeking comment.

But Keeshon Littlechild used a Facebook post to defend his grandfather for giving Francis one of his own many headdresses.

"Bugs me to see people bashing my grandfather and I understand how much respect is needed to be gifted one but at the end of the day that was him showing the pope respect for coming all the way to maskwacis to apologize," he wrote.

Among those coming to Littlechild's defense was Phil Fontaine, a former Assembly of First Nations chief and a residential school survivor.

"Chief Littlechild followed his protocols," Fontaine said. "There is a protocol for that kind of gift. He went to the elders, he went to the leadership and requested permission to present that gift. It is entirely consistent with the way they follow their customs and protocol here."

Jon Crier, a First Nations elder and school survivor, said during a news conference after the apology that the gesture meant tribal leaders "adopted him as one of our leaders in the community.

"It's an honoring of the man, it's an honoring of the work he has done and it's also recognizing … here's a man that belongs in our tribe," Crier said.

Marie-Anne Day Walker Pelletier, former chief of Okanese First Nation, told CTV, "I thought it was pretty cool. The chief of all chiefs now I guess."

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Nicole Winfield and Peter Smith in Maskwacis, Alberta, and Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed reporting. Snow reported from Phoenix.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP's collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.