The Fabric of Life: Repatriating the sacred Coroma textiles


IN FEBRUARY 1988 PIO CRUZ AND Cristina Bubba, representatives of the Aymara community of Coroma, Bolivia, arrived in San Francisco. Their presence symbolized one step in process that their community had initiated to locate and ultimately return sacred textiles that had been "removed" (i.e., stolen) from their community beginning in the late 1970s. This community's determination to regain its textiles, as well as its ability to create a workable strategy, has set in motion a chain of events that have crossed not only international boundaries, but also have successfully challenged a number of socially imposed barriers that discourage indigenous people from regaining stolen cultural property.

The events of the past three years have also demonstrated that many questions still remain in defining the various issues related to the cultural or intellectual property of indigenous people. So far the efforts have focused solely on the physical repatriation of the sacred weavings, leaving aside considerations that would be strictly defined as those of intellectual property: what recourse the people of Coroma might have should the striking designs or color combinations of their weavings be used by others as the basis for "designer" fabrics. As an international case, Coroma has also shown the need to develop not only strategies, but also legal tools to deal with similar international efforts of repatriation. The Coroma repatriation effort has many significant parallels to domestic repatriation processes currently being initiated by native people within the United States and Canada. The questions raised by native people, both in the international and domestic arenas, often place their definitions, perspectives, and needs at odds with those of art and antiquity dealers, collectors, museums, archaeologists, or nation-states.


Coroma is situated in the southern altiplano of Bolivia in the department of Potosí. Its own center is a number of hours' walk from the nearest railroad stop, and widely scattered homesteads are still further. The Coromeños are farmers and herders of llamas and alpacas and speak Aymara and Quechua, as well as Spanish. Coroma's comparative isolation from urban areas is one factor in the persistence of long-standing traditional forms of social organization, including the essential role played by ancient sacred garments in the community's religious, social, and economic well-being.

As is common throughout the Andean region, Coroma's social organization is characterized by an intricate system of lineage-based social groups, or ayllus. (See Rasnake 1988 for a discussion of social organization in the region in which Coroma is located.) These provide the basis for social identity, and for a reciprocal activity that both binds the community and assures balanced social interaction. It is via the ayllus that individuals are linked conceptually to the past and to specific geographic features that mark the Coroma territory; to a sense of history, as well as to sense of future continuity. Ayllus are also an integral and necessary part of the cosmology, linking people to sacred geography and to the powerful guiding spirits of their ancestors.

Coroma has 10 ayllus overall: two in the upper areas and eight in the lower areas. Each is headed by a Kuraka and his wife; as a couple they function as the civil-religious leaders of the ayllu. The largest ayllus also have an Alcalde Cobrador who assumes more secular responsibilities, such as collecting taxes. Each ayllu communally maintains ancient textiles that have great religious and social significance. Venerated as the garments of the ancestors who founded the 10 ayllus, and whose spirits or souls are embodied in the garments, some of the textiles are 400 or 500 years old. They include unkus, axsus, awayos, and ponchos, finely woven of alpaca and vicuna, and are cared for in bundles, or q'epis.

Each q'epi, which may contain up to 15 sacred garments, symbolizes the physical embodiment of the ayllu and is a necessary element in its well-being. Via the q'epis, Coromeños carefully tend to their sacred relationship with their ancestors. Year by year, different Jilacatas and their families act as the custodians of the q'epis, caring for them in their homes and offering them "food" and prayer. This responsibility is vital to the social and spiritual integrity of the community. Additional q'epis are cared for by hereditary Prestes Mayores at the geographic boundary points between ayllus, and between Coroma and other communities.

In Coroma the q'epis are also the focus of much of the community's ceremonial life. The q'epis might be consulted as oracles to answer questions that guide community decision making, such as the appropriate times to plant and harvest; or for advice before taking an important trip. Newlyweds are introduced to the q'epis as part of their new status within the community. Many elements of Aymara Catholicism are merged with the traditional Andean ceremonies. For example, each November, during the Fiesta of All Souls Day, the sacred garments are removed from their q'epis and the people of Coroma wear them and dance. It is said that the ancestors dance again on this day.

Textiles have been at the center of Andean culture for millennia, and highly skilled people have developed elaborate weaving techniques. Mura's (1989) discussion of cloth and its functions during the Inka period gives a clear picture of the high value accorded to textiles for their practical and aesthetic qualities, as well as for their central and pervasive role in the Anean region - in exchange, in tribute, in ceremony, and as markers of age, ethnicity, and gender.

In the Bolivian altiplano each region or community has distinctive fabric and clothing. These variations in design and color mirror not only geographic and ethnic distinctions, but also those of social hierarchy and gender. Coroma's ancient clothing is characteristically of rich blues, purples, and yellows, frequently bearing a central area of one color and broad stripes or bands along the edges. Unlike many other altiplano communities, Coroma textiles emphasize the interplay of bands, stripes, and broad spaces and have no representational figures. The weaving techniques are varied, complex, and finely executed, and the designs contain subtle and intricate symbolic meanings that embody the history and the philosophical underpinnings of Coroma's belief system.


Starting in 1971 the authorities of Coroma began to make inventories of the contents of the q'epis. As the inventory progressed, they discovered that a number of the sacred garments were gone, having been substituted by others. By the early 1980s Cristina Bubba, a social scientist associated with HISBOL (a Bolivian grassroots development organization) and the Bolivian National Archives, began living and working in Coroma. Her work accelerated the inventory process, and she took photos of each garment.

The disappearance of the sacred weavings coincided with visits by various North American ethnic art and antiquities dealers beginning in 1978. (As was customary in Coroma, all those visiting the community were required to sign a "Book of Acts.") The dealers often arrived in Coroma during the Fiesta of All Souls Day and took photographs of the sacred garments; this was the only time of the year when the weavings were publicly removed from their q'epis. According to Coromeños, hired intermediaries, using these photos as guides, either stole the sacred garments outright or took them by bribing community members. From the community's perspective, as well as under Bolivian law, which recognizes communal ownership, no individual has the moral or legal right to alienate, through payment, that which has ongoing historical, traditional, and cultural importance. The sacred weavings are communally owned; if they are not in the community, they have, by definition, been stolen.

Bubba (1990:4, my translation) indicates: "Starting at this time (with the discovery of thefts), the ayllus joined together and mobilized, working with the governmental authorities in establishing strict guidelines, including the prohibition of the entrance into these communities by foreign commercial dealers. In spite of this prohibition, the foreigners slyly hired Bolivian intermediaries to obtain the textiles for them. As years went by, the community became increasingly more angry."

She characterized the loss to Coroma in the following ways: * the destruction of the history of the people of Coroma. The textiles are a form of documentation in which is written the history of each ethnic group, as well as the distinctions between the ayllus. * a gradual separation of the different ayllus that make up the community of Coroma, since the q'epis give identity to the members of each group. * the dismantling of the boundaries between Coroma and other ethnic groups. * the breakdown of religious beliefs: with the disappearance of the textiles from the q'epis, the tie to the ancestors is broken. * the loss of power: the supernatural and religious insight and knowledge that the spirits of the ancestors in the q'epis give to the Jilacatas during their year of religious responsibility. * the destruction of the social organization. * the disappearance of the documentation of different eras, since the q'epis contain garments from distinct historical periods.

When a sacred garment is taken from the community, a Coromeño believes that the spirits of the ancestors have been kidnapped. The dealers sees the garment as a potentially money-making antiquity that will fetch a hefty price tag once it reaches the United States. Removed from the context of the community, the textiles is the object of differing, often conflicting ideologies that define its intrinsic nature, its appropriate use, and, by necessity, the legal interpretation regarding who should control it and under what circumstances. The three ideologies are based on cosmology, economics, and theory. While in actuality these ideologies are not mutually exclusive, they do broadly define some of the players in the Coroma drama as it has unfolded, and awareness of them has facilitated an understanding of the often labyrinthine process of developing an appropriate strategy to deal with international repatriation. One of the advantages in Coroma's case has been the successful working coalition between the people of Coroma and the network of social scientists and others.

Regardless of perspective, one thing is certain: once the textiles leave Coroma in the hands of dealers or their intermediaries, they become part of the high-priced, illicit international trade in antiquities, or what Nagin (1986) calls "silk collar crime." Dealers, some of whom signed their names in the Coroma Book of Acts during All Souls Day, ply their trade in museums and galleries or in the homes of private collectors. There is a long tradition in Europe and the United States of a symbiotic and mutually reinforcing relationship between elite art and antiquity collectors - collectors who may also make large donations or sit on boards - and museums. (See Price 1989 for an insightful discussion of the role of the connoisseur in European-based cultures.)

Some who purchase Coroma textiles and other antiquities from dealers may be unsuspecting of their origin; others, however - both individuals and museums - may conveniently and in their own self-interest choose to ignore questions of provenance and the means of acquisition. One of the points dealers frequently used in selling Coroma textiles was that they are ceremonial, which adds an exotic appeal. Didn't the buyers ever ask how these ceremonies would continue without the textiles? it is the strong voice from Coroma that has now clearly posed that very question as the community moves to seek repatriation.

In early 1988, a stroke of luck occurred - one in a series of good omens that Coromeños identify as emanating from their kidnapped ancestors' spirits' strong yearning to return home. John Murra of Cornell University received a postcard announcing the opening of an ethnic art exposition in San Francisco. Pictured in color on the postcard was a ceremonial unku (tunic) from Coroma. Murra contacted Bubba in Bolivia and various colleagues throughout the United States. Once the postcard arrived in Coroma, the community's authorities decided to send two representatives to the United States - Pio Cruz and Bubba - to locate and retrieve the weavings. (During the previous year disquieting questions of possible illegal trafficking had been circulating in academic circles when various Coroma textiles and other Andean antiquities began to appear in museums and private collections.)

Cruz and Bubba arrived in San Francisco in early February. Fairly rapidly an international network of cultural anthropologists, archaeologists, art historians, textile experts, and Native Americans from the United States began to organize in support of the Coroma efforts. Much of what followed during the subsequent three years has been the result of the determination of the Coroma community and its successful collaborative relationship with this network of allies.


In February 1988, US Customs, at the urging of the Coroma representatives and the Bolivian embassy and as part of an investigation of suspected fraud, theft, and illegal importation into the United States, began to confiscate items from the dealer who had advertised Coroma textiles. Hundreds of pieces were confiscated from the exhibit and from the dealer's home and storage depot, many of which were identified by Cruz, Bubba, archaeologist Karen Bruners, and others as being from Coroma. After one month in the United States, including meeting with the United States Cultural Property Advisory Committee in Washington, DC, Cruz and Bubba returned to Coroma to join with others in continued repatriation efforts there and throughout Bolivia.

In the following two years US Customs made numerous other confiscation's throughout the United States, confiscation's that were justified on the basis of the 1961 Bolivian constitutional Article 191 regarding cultural property, which prohibits exporting the archaeological, artistic, and historical riches of the country, in particular those created prior to the 1900. In addition, both Bolivia and the United States had signed the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which was intended to regulate international trafficking of cultural property that is deemed national patrimony. In May 1988, at the urging and through the efforts of the people of Coroma and other Bolivians working with them, the Bolivian government formally submitted a request to the United States that emergency restrictions on the importation of Coroma textiles be implemented. The responding report by the US Cultural Property Advisory Committee (1988) recommended emergency import restrictions of Coroma textiles. Since the United States' signing of the UNESCO convention, only three countries have requested import restrictions. On 14 March 1989, restrictions prohibiting importation of Coroma textiles into the United States for a five-year period were imposed.

Meanwhile, in Bolivia, public sentiment and consciousness had been raised regarding the loss of the Coroma sacred weavings. Numerous articles appeared in newspapers and magazines, and the community of Coroma was nominated for the National Cultural Prize.

In May 1988 a Bolivian supreme decree moved the date prohibiting all future textile exportation from those produced prior to 1900 to those produced prior to 1950. In addition, a presidential decree acknowledging the rights of the community of Coroma further specified that the sacred weavings must be returned to their community of origin rather than being housed by a museum in the national capital of La Paz, as other internationally repatriated national treasures or cultural patrimony might be. Then, in September, formal legal proceedings were taken against Coroma residents and intermediaries involved in the theft of sacred weavings. Some served jail terms.

Throughout 1988 and 1989, the people of Coroma, in collaboration with HISBOL, produced a video regarding the role of the sacred weaving in Coroma and a reenactment of the thefts. This video received the Bolivian Silver Condor award as the best documentary of 1989.

In the fall of 1989 attorneys Michael Ratner, Bill Verick, and Jordan Eth took on the Coroma case pro bono. Through their efforts in out-of-court negotiations, other weavings have been retrieved from the United States.

In February 1990, five people from Coroma - Cruz, Salustiana de Torrez, Benedicto Flores, Clemente Perez, and Bubba - came to California to identify in detail the weavings confiscated by US Customs. The identification process was, at times, an emotional ordeal; at one point a Cormeño remarked, "Our ancestors must be so sad and lonely here with no one to care for them." During their stay in the United States they had the opportunity to meet with Native Americans, and Coromeños assured them of their mutual support for parallel efforts regarding repatriation of sacred objects. When this group returned to Coroma with photographs of the weavings being held by US Customs, further detailed identification was carried out by others in Coroma.

US Customs and Coroma's attorneys continue to apply every means possible to gain the repatriation of the Coroma weavings. As of late spring 1991 prospects look excellent, but still none of the sacred weavings have been physically returned to Coroma. Meanwhile, in July 1988, the Canadian government confiscated thousands of illegally imported Bolivian items, some of them Coroma sacred weavings. The accused dealer is scheduled to stand trial this fall.


The case of Coroma is only one example of a crime that is spreading worldwide. As the demand for "ethnic" or "primitive" art and antiquities escalates in the United States, Europe, and Japan, and as prices soar, indigenous people often lose objects that are so valuable in sacred and social terms that they are without price. The losses often hit at the very core of their existence and their survival as a people. The Coroma example is a landmark case for indigenous people seeking concrete means to pursue the repatriation of stolen cultural or intellectual properties.


In the international sphere, Coroma has forced awareness of indigenous people's cultural property rights on both the national and international levels, a fundamental step for the international indigenous rights movement. Viewed against the panorama of the countless losses of sacred items by indigenous people, it is significant that the voice of Coroma has been heard at all. Significant, too, is the fact that the thefts were directly from the community rather than from a museum, and that the community likewise took action to locate and repatriate the weavings.

By contrast, the vast number of other instances of international repatriation of cultural property, especially of "antiquities," have been at the request of museums or nations rather than indigenous people themselves, even though the items have often been of vital interest of indigenous people. The Bolivian government, utilizing the 1970 UNESCO convention on cultural property and acting on behalf of the Coroma community, has clearly recognized the community as a local native entity within the nation-state. The voices and actions of Coromeños in this instance have been central to the entire series of events. The Coroma case also struck a sensitive chord for the Bolivian state, replaying a long history of "conquest," pillage," and a general sense of theft of riches and resources throughout its colonial relationship with Europe and its neo-colonial relationship with the United States, currently dramatized by Bolivia's crushing international debt.

Many of the issues that Coroma has raised for indigenous rights are still so new that at every juncture over the last three years the participants have had to find appropriate terminology and strategies for handling repatriation. Because the Coroma textiles have moved not only from the country but also through a series of very distinct social domains, they have stimulated Rashomon-like interpretations and responses. Are the weavings to be considered as sacred weavings alive with the spirits of the ancestors, as antiquities, as artifacts, or as cultural property?

The series of events leading up to the Coroma repatriation effort has also brought attention to the need for domestic and international legal tools for trying such cases. The United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations and the Organization of American States' Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have addressed numerous issues of indigenous rights for many years; but it is often difficult to effectively apply these international declarations in a manner that provides legal sanctions. Although the Coroma efforts have moved within the spheres of international law (1970 UNESCO convention), Bolivian law, and US domestic law, the lack of legal precedent means that these efforts often slip through the cracks.

There is an urgent need for public education regarding these and other repatriation issues, especially those involving indigenous people. How many collectors of "ethnic art" continue to be ignorant of the impact that their purchases of ceremonial objects have on indigenous communities - and how many simply do not care? Art dealers need to develop enforceable sanctions based on professional ethical standards in order to control unscrupulous sellers. Museums, too, need to give serious attention to acquisition policies, whether works are purchased from a dealer or donated by a collector.

In the United States

The Coroma repatriation comes at a time when Native Americans are carefully defining the conceptual basis, as well as useful legal and policy instruments, for domestic repatriation. Coroma has parallels and contrasts to these concerns. Similar to the Coroma case, for example, the Six Nations Iroquois gained repatriation of 11 Wampums of vital religious and historic value (Fenton 1989), and the Zuni have gone through a series of negotiations with museums and private collectors in locating and regaining their War Gods (Suro 1990).

Within the United States much of the Native American repatriation efforts have focused on regaining ancestral remains and associated ceremonial objects excavated by archaeologists and now housed in museums. Dealers and private collectors have yet to come under the intense scrutiny found in the Coroma repatriation efforts. Within the United States, the ideological contention has often been between Native Americans on the one side and archaeologists and museums on the other; in the case of Coroma, however, allies have come by necessity from the ranks of archaeologists, who need to help authenticate the weavings to prove illegal export under Bolivian law. In addition, Andean archaeologists, in their own self-interest, have supported the Coroma efforts because the same international trade in antiquities encompasses looting and plundering of archaeological sites. The 1988 Bolivian supreme decree that upholds Coroma's right to the weavings - rather than any rights to national patrimony that museums and other institutions might claim - clearly gives priority to the weavings as objects of veneration, nor objects of scholarship.

Within the United States, questioning the role of scholarship is central to Native Americans' repatriation efforts. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (Public Law 101-601), passed in November 1990, makes possible a process of repatriation by Native Americans. Public Law 101-601 focuses exclusively on domestic questions of repatriation - on items removed from burials (most often by archaeologists) that are currently in museums and other institutions rather than on items held by private collectors and dealers. However, the law does make a number of clear definitions of "funerary objects," "sacred objects," and "cultural patrimony." These will prove useful in international repatriation questions.

Even more recently, last March the board of trustees of the newly established National Museum of the American Indian of the Smithsonian Institution announced its far-reaching policy on Native American human remains and cultural materials. This policy responds directly to Native American needs and concerns, and outlines the parameters of cultural materials to be considered for repatriation, including communally owned Native American property, objects acquired illegally, and ceremonial and religious objects "needed by Native American religious leaders for the practice of traditional Native American religions" (Board of Trustees, National Museum of the American Indian 1991:2). The new policy of the National Museum of the American Indian is hemispheric in nature, stating:

With respect to Native American peoples beyond the borders of the United States, this policy shall be carried out in accordance with the following procedures and applicable treaties and international agreements.... In its acquisition practices, the Museum endorses and abides by the principles of the UNESCO Convention and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

These laws and policies underline the need to seriously and consistently address the issues of repatriation and to create legal tools that are sensitive and responsive to native needs and perspectives.

On another, related front, an amendment is being proposed to the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act. The original act sought to guarantee rights to religious practice by Native Americans, the rights ostensibly guaranteed to all American citizens through the constitution. Since 1978 a series of court cases has eroded the act's original intent. The current amendments seek to define more specifically and concretely the areas needing protection, thereby strengthening its overall effectiveness. Although this act deals with domestic rather than hemispheric indigenous issues, the amount of discussion and thinking that has gone into it indicate the strength of Native American ideas and voices and the determination to protect religious rights.

One significance that the Coroma repatriation effort has for Native Americans is in the active role that the US government took in defending Coroma's indigenous rights to religious practice and cultural property. This stance is most clearly evidenced in the report of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (1988:11) in its recommendation of an import ban on Coroma weavings:

The Committee finds that the ceremonial textiles of Coroma meet the definition of "material of ethnological interest" provided by in the Cultural Property Act. The textiles are...important to the cultural heritage of the Aymara people because of their distinctive characteristics and comparative rarity as well as their contribution to the knowledge of the origins, development and history of the Aymara people. It has been established that many of Coroma's textiles have been handed down within the Aymara community for centuries.

It is also seen in the notation in the US Federal Registry at the time the emergency import restrictions were enacted (vol. 54, no. 48, 14 March 1989):

U.S. import restrictions are applied to the antique ceremonial textiles from the community of Coroma, Bolivia. These are...owned communally by the Native people of this small Andean community. For centuries, they have played an integral role in the lives of the people of Coroma who wear them in special ceremonies. When not worn, they are honored and stored in bundles.

Domestically, the US policy is much more guarded. It is extremely significant in this case that it respects and supports native rights to cultural property; these actions may prove useful to repatriation efforts by Native Americans.

It is also significant to note the differences in the ability of the US and Canadian governments to deal with the legalities of international repatriation. In contrast to the three years of guarded optimism within the United States, the Canadian government has moved firmly toward trial proceedings against at least one major dealer of alleged illegally imported antiquities, including Coroma sacred weavings.

In Coroma

The series of repatriation events have galvanized and unified the Coroma community in a number of unforeseen ways. Thus far, the people of Coroma have succeeded in locating their stolen sacred weavings, in gaining public sympathy and support, in working with anthropologists and others, and in identifying legal avenues, instruments, and institutions (both in Bolivia and the United States) for working toward repatriation. These successes have engendered a sense of empowerment within Coroma. Many of the younger Coromeños, who increasingly had been drawn to national rather than community pursuits, have demonstrated a renewed respect for and interest in the town's traditional religious activities. And some of Coroma's more Eurocentric schoolteachers and evangelical Christians, who had previously decried Andean traditions and religious practices, have taken a less vocal stance. The success of Coroma's repatriation efforts also has drawn the attention of other altiplano communities that have suffered a similar loss of their weavings. Cormeños have been speaking to other communities regarding their repatriation process, and there is now talk of a regional alliance with a major focus on repatriation.

Questions remain, however. The statement of one of the Coromeños who stood trial for his involvement in the loss of the weavings is poignant. He recounted the time during the drought years in the early 1980s when his family was near starvation; his desperation to save his children drove him to "sell' a sacred weaving. What other economic or social factors contribute to such a precarious level of survival for a community, and what steps need to be taken to alleviate this situation? Since the first repatriation efforts, Bolivian and grassroots international development organizations have begun to consider this question. The results remain to be seen.


The work of many people is in this article. I especially wish to mention Cristina Bubba, Pio Cruz, and the other courageous people of Coroma whose strengths and insights have made possible much of what is discussed here.


Board of Trustees, National Museum of the American Indian

1991 National Museum of the American Indian Policy Statements on Native American Human Remains and Cultural Materials. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Bubba, C. et al.

1990 A proposito de las culturas: Los textiles de Coroma. Unitas (January, Number II).

Cereceda, V.

1986 The Semiology of Andean Textiles: The Talegas of Isluga. In J.V. Murra et al., eds. Anthropological History of Andean Polities. London: Cambridge University Press.

Cultural Property Advisory Committee

1988 Reports of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to the President and Congress Regarding the Request of the Government of Bolivia for U.S. Import Restrictions Under the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act. Washington, DC: Cultural Property Advisory Committee.

Fenton, W.N.

1989 Return of Eleven Wampums to the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy on Grand River, Canada. Ethnohistory 36(4).

Murra, J.

1989 Cloth and Its Function in the Inka State. In A. Weiner and J. Schneider, eds. Cloth and Human Experience. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Nagin, C.

1986 The Politics of Plunder. New Art Examiner (November):22-28.

Price, S.

1989 Primitive Art in Civilized Places. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rasnake, R.

1988 Domination and Cultural Resistance: Authority and Power Among an Andean People. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Suro, R.

1990 Zunis' Efforts to Regain Idols May Alter View of Indian Art. New York Times. 13 August.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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