The Repatriation Question

The repatriation debate effectively commenced the moment that Adrián Recinos (re)discovered “Popol Vuh” within the Ayer 1515 ms at The Newberry Library. The answer lies in defining the substance of “Popol Vuh.”

The ontological signification of “Popol Vuh” depends on whether one regards “Popol Vuh” as a narrative or as an object. The narrative originated among the Quiché Maya who had themselves sculpted it from a broader Maya narrative. Both narratives predate the arrival of Spanish colonizers. There are Pre-Columbian artifacts in the archaeological record bearing artisanal representations of various scenes. The narrative, as it now exists, is undeniably Maya.

The Maya, however, did not write as we understand it in our post-enlightenment sense. Their cultural epistemology called for knowledge to be deposited in and entrusted to living, human vessels, which consequently eschewed inanimate records of wood and stone. To create a textual record would have devalued its worth and impeached its validity.

The narrative that is expressed through the text of Ayer ms 1515 is the missionary exposition of a Dominican friar. Father Francisco Ximénez was born in Europe, was educated in Europe, and was beholden to European agenda. He vowed priestly poverty and all his materials were provided by the Catholic church. His vow of poverty also meant that his intellectual property belonged to the Catholic church. On three levels then, Ayer ms 1515 is property of the Catholic church. It is Church property first because Ximénez utilized paper and ink purchased by the Church for Church affairs. It is Church property second because it is the work product of an agent of the Church. It is church property third because Ximénez assigned all of his intellectual property rights to the Church. So Ayer ms 1515 always belonged to the Catholic church during Ximénez’s life and also after Ximénez’s death.

Ayer ms 1515 was left behind in 1829 when General Morazán expelled the clerics from Guatemala. One could argue that it thereupon became abandoned property, but the conflict circumstances mitigate any imputation of willful abandonment and the Church certainly would have had a strong legal claim to the manuscript even today, some two hundred years later. The matter became moot, though, when Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg (a French abbot of the Catholic church) retook possession and returned to France. The manuscript was thus constructively in the Church’s legal possession once again.

It could be argued that Brasseur had no authority to transfer the manuscript to Alphonse Pinart. Nevertheless, Pinart sold the manuscript to Edward Ayer, who later donated the same to The Newberry Library where Recinos discovered its unnoticed narrative content. Upon publishing his edition in 1947, Recinos effectively gave the Church legal notice where to find its missing property. Some seventy-five years later, the Church has not asserted a claim nor sought return of its property. Under these circumstances, abandonment is a credible allegation. So Ayer ms 1515 does seem to be the actual property of The Newberry Library.

To speak of repatriation is not really a cognizable subject. Although the manuscript was produced in Guatemala, it was never Guatemalan property and there is no legal claim which can be asserted under United States or Vatican law. Moreover, the pre-Columbian Maya likely would have regarded the written account as a contemptible adulteration of their oral narrative, undesirable to possess. The narrative, however, is not inexorably wedded to the paper which preserved it and that narrative will always belong to Maya heritage without regard to international borders. The narrative is culturally reclaimed every time it is discussed by a Maya person.

In summary, while the narrative content of Ayer ms 1515 is a Maya treasure, the physical object which preserves that narrative is completely European. Ayer ms 1515 simply is not a Maya relic. This fact does not prevent The Newberry from donating Ayer ms 1515 to a Guatemalan museum, but the facts indeed defeat a legal action for repatriation. And then, too, one should question whether it is in the best interest of the manuscript to be in Guatemala. Presently, The Newberry safeguards the manuscript in its climate-controlled fire-proof vault. I am unaware of any comparable accommodation in Guatemala.

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