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Case 8: The Case of the Missing Artifact

For his own aesthetic purposes, Marcus Randolph had collected Pueblo Indian arts and crafts for many years before becoming an anthropologist. Randolph's fieldwork sites for ten years were located in Latin America. However, as a result of personal contacts, he was asked to conduct a brief ethnohistorical study in one of the Rio Grande pueblos. As his study progressed, he learned that an important item had been missing for about 20 years from the collection of paraphernalia used by one of the religious leaders in the community. According to this individual, ceremonies had never been complete since the item had disappeared. Crop failures and other community problems were partially attributed to this loss.

After obtaining a full description from the religious leader and checking this against information about the item with colleagues in local museums and universities, Randolph realized that there was a good chance that the item in question was at least similar to, if not identical to, one he had purchased 15 years previously from a trading post.

Randolph's Dilemma: Should he offer the item in his possession to the religious leader? Should he even show the item to the religious leader? Or, should he simply make a note regarding the missing religious piece and not disclose his personal possession to anyone in the community?

Randolph's Decision

During the time that Randolph was considering this problem, he learned that over a 30 to 50 year period, several regional museums had acquired a great quantity of religious items from many different Pueblo Indians. He told religious and political elders in the community where he was working about the items he had seen in these museums and asked if their absence from the Pueblos had had any adverse effects on the communities and whether or not they wanted to reclaim them from the museums.

The opinions expressed by elders were that (a) the loss of these items was part of the loss of cultural heritage that could not be reclaimed, so (b) there was no value in asking the museums to return the items to them (at least not at this point in time). On the basis of these discussions, Randolph decided not to disclose his personal possession to anyone in the community, but kept a record in his field notes regarding his investigations into and discoveries of "missing" religious and other material culture items.