The initial destination for archaeological findings in Haiti is certainly complicated and requires a historical analysis of at least 300 years. The rationale behind either side of this issue is dominated by a history of imperialism and an examination of who the beneficiaries of these policies are. There is no clear-cut answer for this issue, however, as in some cases, findings should logically belong to indigenous communities, and others should belong to the nation-state within which they were found. In the case of indigenous artifacts from Haiti, however, they should belong and be given to the educational institutions of Haiti. Ultimately, the self-determination of oppressed nations should not be undermined by the academic institutions of first-world nations, even when under the guise of paternalistic decision-making. Therefore, the Haitian-Taíno artifact in question should be given to the Taíno Museum in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Nationalism and anti-nationalism are among the most convincing arguments for both sides of this issue. Anti-nationalist academics claim that archaeological findings should go to either the institution responsible for finding the artifacts, or the institution most equipped to research and care for them. Although this sentiment ultimately should be true, it does not acknowledge that this would and has resulted in a monopoly of academic research in wealthy nations like the United States and Britain. While Kwame Anthony, Ghanaian philosopher who opposes nationalist cultural property laws, is correct when he states that “cultural purity is an oxymoron,”1 it does not address centuries of academic imperialism and ownership over the artifacts of the third-world. When addressing issues like the American educational institutions’ findings in Perú, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it is important to question why educational institutions in these oppressed nations do not impose their academic research into the imperialist overlords of the world (Britain, Canada, United States, etc.). There is a clear power dynamic between these groups of nations that must be eliminated before anti-nationalist cultural artifact laws can be beneficial in any way for those who are not part of bourgeois academia.
Another common argument, especially for the case of Haiti, is that their museums and universities are incapable of securely and safely caring for and researching their own artifacts. As James Cuno states, “[t]he work the curators of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute have done on the inscribed tablets composing the Persepolis Fortification Archive […] was possible only because the tablets were moved to Chicago…”2 This is incredibly paternalist, generalizes huge swaths of the planet’s competence, and undermines their autonomy. The wealthy nations of the world should not be given the right to assert their elitism onto the poor nations of the world. This paternalist attitude will not help to improve the institutions in the third-world, and will continue to prevent them from actually developing into powerful and sustainable institutions. This is not to claim that the concern for safety is invalid, as exemplified by the partial destruction of the Iraq Museum in 2003.3 However, this does question whether it is worthwhile for the world to undermine the self-determination for huge portions of the human population solely for possible security concerns, which might not ever amount to anything. In the case of Haiti, granting the West the ability to dictate Haitian academia only solidifies the former colonial and present neocolonial relationship between the two. As with the over 30 U.S. occupations of Haiti, the foreign invasion of Haiti by Britain, Spain, and France in the 1790’s, and essentially the rest of their post-contact history, this would provide absolutely no benefit to the Haitian people, and would provide great benefits to the American academic bourgeoisie.4 If the concerns for the security of these museums was what this argument was actually about, Western academia would be assisting in efforts to improve economic and political stability in Haiti (i.e., funding efforts to maintain Haitian museums and schools and opposing U.S. military coups) rather than trying to export academia to other parts of the world.
The stability of the Haitian government and economy is probably the most valid and well-reasoned argument for undermining their autonomy. The stability of the Haitian government, of course, is a product of centuries of colonialist and neocolonialist oppression—dozens of military coups backed by the United States, foreign invasion and political suppression, and forced French repatriation for “refugee” slave and plantation owners.5 However, this does not mean the problem does not exist, or is not worth addressing. But, instead of undermining Haiti as a nation entirely, undermining the unstable Haitian government and going straight to a museum is a logical semi-solution. The Taíno Museum in Port-au-Prince does not have the issues relevant to Haiti’s political instability. Furthermore, one could argue that the rise in dissatisfaction with and violent protests against neoliberalism and fascism in the West is a sign of inevitable political instability, and that as a result, they cannot be responsible for the safety of their academic institutions either. In reality, wherever there is a class system, whether that be between foreign powers and the locals, or the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, there will be a possibility, or an inevitability even, for political instability. Lastly, it should be the right of the Haitian people, not Western academics, to determine whether their government is stable enough for the nation to hold valuable artifacts. If they believe it is not, then they can choose where their artifacts are given, and when they are given back.
Lastly, the argument that Haitians do not identify themselves as indigenous in the same way as, for example, Dominicans do, is pretty meaningless. If this were truly the concern, and not simply an excuse for exporting artifacts to a foreign power, then these same academics would not be taking claim to them either. Even more convincingly, they would not be claiming indigenous artifacts and exhuming indigenous ancestors from communities which are still around, like the Andean/Incan girl discussed by Eric Bergman, because, surely, the Yale elite does not identify with Andean cultural heritage.6 Furthermore, to counter this, there simply is no Haitian Taíno population anymore, as they were completely destroyed by colonial terror and disease.7 Since this is the case, the artifact should logically go to its “next-of-kin,” which would be the present-day Haitians. Granting it to the international Taíno community makes less sense than this, because Taínos come from all parts of the Antilles, and as such, likely do not really have anything in common with the land mass and national borders of Haiti.
In order to counter the legacy of Western dominance over Haiti and the continued undermining of their self-determination, those who gain access to historical artifacts from the nation should give them to Haitian institutions and/or request to study them. In this specific case, as it is an indigenous artifact, it is most logical to donate it to the Taíno Museum in Haiti, located in Port-au-Prince. Undermining or avoiding the state is mildly reasonable in the case of Haitian artifacts, since they have not had a stable government since the revolution of 1804. In addition to the instability, self-determination is more meaningful and important when applied to human beings, not to nation-states. All decisions made in regards to potential institutions for which to donate Haitian artifacts should be made by Haitians, not Americans. Most of the arguments made by the ideologues of educational institutions like Yale and Harvard are nothing more than thinly veiled racism, paternalism, and an attempt at making personal and institutional advancements off of the backs of imperial subjects.
- 6 Bergman, Eric. “Reversing the Flow of Traffic in the Market of Cultural Property.” Journal of the South and Meso American Indian Rights Center, Summer 1996: 13-17.
- 1, 2, 3 Cuno, James. “Antiquity Belongs to the World.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 4, 2008.
- 4, 5 Goodwin, Clayton. “Why Haiti is Poor.” New African, Feb. 2010: 38-41.
- 7 Poole, Robert. “What Became of the Taíno?” Smithsonian Magazine, October 2011.