Ceremonial Yaqui artifact Maaso Koba being returned after 100 years in Swedish museum
Dancer who wears deer head 'the only being who can travel to the spirit world. That's how important it is to us.' — Yaqui Chairman Peter Yucupicio
A collection of 24 artifacts of Yaqui origin is being returned to the Rio Yaqui people in Mexico after being held by a Swedish museum for 100 years.
One of those items is the sacred Maaso Koba, a ceremonial deer 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.
"To us in ceremony for hundreds and thousands of years, (there is) the gravity of the deer dance — the Maaso dance — which contains the deer head — the Maaso Koba," said Pascua Yaqui tribal Chairman Peter Yucupicio. "And he's the only being that 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. That's 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. Aside from the deer head, the collection includes other pieces of regalia and rattles.
On June 3, Francisco Eduardo del Río López, Mexico's 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. That return has been in the making for 19 years, and it was a cooperative process, said Rafael Barceló Durazo, Mexico's consul in Tucson.
"The request was coming 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, that request had to be facilitated by nation states, either the embassy of Mexico to the Swedish embassy to the U.S. government to the Swedish government. I think the international aspect of it made it a little challenging."
Experts in how tribal governments interact with foreign countries under international law called the agreement a significant one.
"It's rare that indigenous peoples and lawyers for indigenous peoples have victories. That's one of the things that make this a happy ending because we don't often expect to prevail because of that history of conquest and colonization that has taken so much from indigenous peoples and the law doesn't usually give very much back to indigenous peoples," said Kristen Carpenter, director of the American Indian Law Program at the University of Colorado Law School.
"A really significant 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 itself," said Carpenter, who served as the North American member of the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from 2017 to 2021.
That group, along with the International Indian Treaty Council, played an essential role as the Yaqui approached the issue of returning ceremonial items on the international level, she said.
The repatriation agreement points to 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 that document the Yaqui with the grounds to proceed with the repatriation process. The declaration holds that indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and protect the "past, present and future manifestations of their cultures" which includes artifacts. Article 12 specifically calls for the right of states to "seek to enable the access and/or repatriation of ceremonial objects."
The Yaqui had to work through some challenges as they worked toward an agreement for the return.
"I think the biggest challenge was they were saying at first it was gifted to them by a deer dancer and then they turned around and changed that to they bought 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 object is not something to be given away to a foreign collector.
"There is documentation of a ceremony taking in place in the 1930s where the deer dance was happening and they were doing a celebration," the tribal chairman said. "It starts like it wasn't being used, but it is used. It was used in ceremonial context and that's what it important to us."
The Sami people, an indigenous group who live in northern Sweden and Norway, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of 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 herding reindeer.
The Swedish government eventually understood the significance of the Maaso Koba and why it should be back with its people, not inside a plexiglass case away from home, Carpenter said. The items will be returned "with dignity and respect" to the Rio Yaqui people in Mexico.
It still isn't decided where these items will be housed, but Yucupicio said they'll make sure they're properly preserved.
"It is very, very important that our youth, our people, don't forget where they came from," Yucupicio said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Carpenter’s first name.
Bianca Morales is TucsonSentinel.com’s Cultural Expression and Community Values reporter, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.