Indians Win Back Sacred Art

Article excerpt

San Francisco

"The spirits of our ancestors were lonely, and they called to us," is how Pio Cruz, an Amyra Indian from Bolivia, explained his community's search for their sacred ceremonial weavings. Cruz and his fellow villagers from the little town of Coroma, nestled high in the Bolivian Andes, accomplished a rare feat in November. After four years of struggle, they managed to recover the sacred art they had lost to the North American art market.

At the outset, the task seemed hopeless. How could all impoverished village of 6,000 inhabitants--most of whom do not speak Spanish, never mind English--hope to force wealthy art collectors and dealers in the United States to hand over goods for which they had paid high prices? The Coromans managed to catalyze a network of lawyers, anthropologists, Native American activists, U.S. Customs officials, and the Bolivian government, to pressure the dealers and collectors into returning the weavings.

"It was an amazing case," says Michael Ratner, a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights who helped the Coromans get the weavings back. "I really have to hand it to them. That they were able to do this makes you believe that there really is another dimension, a spirit world." Indeed, the Coromans themselves say that their achievement was due to the intervention of the ancestral spirits who reside in the weavings--and from the help they got from Native spirits in North America.

High in the Andean mountains of Bolivia, expert Amyra weavers once produced woven garments with vibrant colors and the texture of silk for the Inca nobles. The Incas are long gone but, remarkably, some of the weavings in use at that time remain. These ancient garments are worshipped in many parts of the Andes; they are not only consulted as oracles and venerated as encoding the history of the people, but are believed to contain the souls of the ancestors. Carefully preserved in bundles called q'epis, the weavings survived the Spanish conquest and the brutal anti-Indian policies of many Bolivian governments.

In no village in the Andes are the textiles more ancient, more beautiful, or more valued than in Coroma, Bolivia. Since before Columbus landed in the Americas, the people of Coroma have hidden away their sacred weavings, bringing them out only on November 1, the Day of the Dead, when the garments are ritually displayed in an all-day celebration of the connection between the world of the living and the universe of the deceased. …