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Returning to her Eternal Home: Repatriating Ñusta to the People of Bolivia

In his February 2019 letter, MSU Museum Director Mark Auslander reflects on the recent repatriation to Bolivia of “Ñusta” the 500-year-old mummified ancestral remains of a young girl, after her 129 year-long sojourn in the MSU Museum collections. What lessons does “Ñusta” and her long journey have for us, as we ponder questions of environmental stewardship, human rights, and sovereignty in our inter-connected world?

On January 22, MSU Museum representatives participated in a beautiful ceremony in the reception hall of Repatriating “Ñusta” to the People of Boliviathe Embassy of the Plurinational State of Bolivia in Washington D.C. On the occasion of Bolivia’s Plurinational Day, we marked the formal repatriation of “Ñusta,” the ancestral mummified remains of a young girl, who was around eight years old when she died.

I was profoundly moved by a ritual performance by Ms. Julia Garcia, representing the indigenous communities of Bolivia, honoring “Ñusta,” an Aymara term for “princess,” as an embodiment of Pachamama, the benevolent goddess of the Earth. In turn, we offered the ancestral figure, respectfully placed atop stunning Andean textiles, grains and plants evoking the full range of Bolivia’s varied topography, from lowland Amazonia to the highest snow-capped mountain peaks. Ms. Rivera explained that in Aymara cosmology, a revered pure young ancestress such as “Ñusta” is a shared bridge across the spectrum of life and death, embodying the spirit of renewal and hope upon which all life depends.

At the conclusion of the repatriation process, “Ñusta” will be safeguarded within the National Museum of Archeology of Bolivia (Munarq) in La Paz, which is equipped with state of the art technology designed for the long-term preservation of mummified remains.

How did “Ñusta” Come to East Lansing?

“Ñusta” was donated to the Museum in 1890, along with the pouches, beads, plant remains, and leather objects with which she had been interred. The tag associated with the remains reads:

“Bolivian Mummy/This mummy of an eight-year-old girl, a member of the Inca culture of 1500 A.D., is the result of natural drying in an arid part of the Andean Mountains south of La Paz, Bolivia. After death the body was placed in a stone tower, or chullpa, along with leather sandals, a bag of corn, fruit and beans, a sling and a gourd full of small pebbles. This exhibit was presented to the Museum in 1890 by Mr. Fenton R. McCreery, who, at that time, was the U.S. consul to Chile.”

The tag appears to be slightly in error, on at least two points. Fenton’s father was William B. McCreery, (1836- 1896), US Counsel to Chile, a civil war veteran who at one time served as Mayor of Flint; Fenton himself served as clerk in the US legation in Valparaiso, Chile, before going on to a distinguished diplomatic career. We also suspect that while she lived under Inka rule, she was probably associated with an indigenous community with roots in the region that long preceded the Inka imperial system. The chullpa tower structure, in which she was interred, is associated with the indigenous Aymara, who were conquered by the Inca in the 15th century.

As of this writing we are unsure how William B. McCreery or Fenton McCreery acquired “Ñusta” and her accouterments. Were these materials first removed by tomb robbers and offered for sale on the market, or did Fenton perhaps remove her himself during his travels? In any event, the removal of this ancestor from her original place of internment is a sobering reflection of a vast history of exporting indigenous human remains and vital objects of cultural patrimony, all too often for the benefit of wealthy collectors and viewers in the global North.

Having said that, our Bolivian partners indicate they are grateful to Fenton McCreery for having donated Ñusta to the “Museum Department,” as we were then known, rather than retaining her in private possession or putting her on the market. These actions ensured her long-term preservation and have made it possible, 129 years later, for her to return home. In turn, Mr. Edward B. Davison of Flint, Michigan, Fenton McCreery’s grand-nephew, notes how pleased the family is that at long last Ñusta is being repatriated and will occupy a place of honor in the National Museum of Archaeology in La Paz.

“Ñusta” at the Embassy of Bolivia in Washington D.C.These mummified remains were intermittently on display at the Museum through much of the 20th century. In the early 1970s, she was permanently removed from display, in light of increasing concerns that public viewing would be disrespectful to this ancestral figure. In recent years, we became convinced that the ethical course of action was to repatriate her to Bolivia, consistent with the UN Treaty of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which calls for the repatriation of indigenous ancestral remains.

How did she die?

MSU anthropologists Bill Lovis and Gabe Wrobel recently conducted preliminary research on items in the pouches, being careful not to disturb the bodily integrity of the human remains themselves. Carbon-14 testing of maize in one of the pouches dates to around 1470, over two decades before Columbus voyages to the Caribbean. MRI scanning suggests that she was in good health up until the time of her death, at approximately eight years of age.

Scholars are divided on the question of the cause of her death. Some contend she was likely a victim of human sacrifice, a relatively common practice in the Inka Empire, the largest pre-Columbian polity in the Americas. Anthropologist Thomas Besom argues in his book, “Inka Human Sacrifice and Mountain Worship: Strategies for Empire Unification,” that through ritual sacrifice the Inka leadership subtly deployed ancient regional cosmological concepts to naturalize their legitimacy over a diverse range of indigenous communities. Pre-pubescent children seem to have been understood as particularly pure offerings, binding scattered localities into empire-wide control over grand cycles of death, renewal and rebirth.

“Ñusta’s” remains show no signs of trauma, but it is known that some sacrificial victims were dispatched through the ingestion of coca and other drugs, which may have allowed them to die of exposure to the elements in an undisturbed stupor.

Having said that, the fact that she was placed in a chullpa tower suggests to Dr. Besom that she is unlikely to have been a sacrificial victim.

Her Changing Meanings

In all human societies, human remains are the sources of profound meanings: the treatment of the bodies of the dead provides a complex map of how we conceptualize the body politic, and how we think about relations of power, domination, and equality. The meanings of dead bodies thus may change significantly over time as our thinking about society itself evolves.

The very fact that “Ñusta” was removed, presumably without any permission from her descendants and given to a far-away Museum, is evidence that she was seen by white North American diplomats as an object to be acquired and circulated as they chose, rather than treated with the dignity they would have accorded the remains of one of their own ancestors. For many decades in our Museum “Ñusta” was probably viewed by thousands of visitors as an exotic curiosity that was somewhat alien, freakish, or even frightening. Unconsciously, her display may have reinforced dominant white American beliefs in their own superiority over ostensibly “primitive” cultures. More recently, we have come to understand the remains of indigenous peoples as honored ancestors who are central to the dignity and sovereignty of their descendants, who have legal and ethical rights to expect their repatriation following appropriate consultation. These remains have become signs of our shared aspiration for creating a more just, respectful, and tolerant world.

In modern Bolivia, ancestral beings such as “Ñusta” have taken on even more poignant meanings. In 2009, the Bolivian Constitution was revised to declare Bolivia a “Plurinational State,” according equal and sovereign rights to all indigenous communities, which for 500 years had seen their lands and cultural dignity violently torn away. Affording dignity to the returning remains of indigenous ancestors, especially those who were removed without permission from the land of their birth, is understood as a process of profound restoration, “making whole” both individuals and entire cultures. In beholding “Ñusta,” seated in a place of honor atop intricate textiles in the Embassy’s reception hall, our Bolivian friends see a vision of their own reconstituted body politic, in which indigenous peoples are full and equal partners in the life of the nation. For those of us from the MSU Museum, seeing “Ñusta” in this place of respect, after her 129-year sojourn, provides a vision of a different kind of world than was envisioned in 1890, one based on principles of mutual respect and equality between peoples and nations.

At the close of the ceremony, the Embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission Alejandro Bilbao La Vieja Ruiz, with whom I had worked to plan the repatriation transfer, explained that for Bolivians, death and life are intimately bound together. “Ñusta” is our emissary, traversing the great road back to her mountain home:

“We do not consider that this girl has died for us. Life and death are part of the same cyclical journey. If you ever have seen the movie “Coco” this is almost the same but different: we say “markaparuw sarje “, that is: “she has gone to her village, she went back to Her town”. And we also say “Wiñay markaparuw sarxi”, which means “she has gone to her Eternal Town.” For us there is no death, it is a simple transformation, it is a trip to another place. We also say “since the arrival of the conquistadors there is death,” but now we are returning to our lands.”

Through “Ñusta,” all of us are bound together in the shared enterprise of caring for our Mother Earth, of safeguarding her fragile ecosystems and creating a more sustainable world for ourselves and our posterity.