By: Emily Behzadi
Latin America is a region rich with cultural heritage that existed for centuries before its antiquities were looted, trafficked, and sold on the international market. The language used to classify these objects of cultural heritage has been a tool of oppression and erasure. In reference to those objects of historical importance, auction houses, dealers, museums, and even looters themselves consistently use the term “Pre- Columbian.” “Pre-Columbian,” which means “before Columbus,” defines the historical period prior to the establishment of the Spanish culture in the national territories of Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean islands. In fact, this definition is the basis of the 1972 Pre-Columbian Act in the United States, which addresses trafficking of Latin American sculptures, murals, and architectural elements.
This Article examines the use of “Pre-Columbian” in American cultural heritage law in the context of linguistic settler colonialism, which results in the oppression and continued trauma of cultures through the use of harmful language. This Article argues that any reference to Columbus in the laws impacting Latin American cultural heritage contributes to the erasure of Indigenous peoples. Its use advances the fallacy that these peoples were “primitive,” “tribal,” or even “uncivilized.” It also perpetuates the belief that these groups only exist through their connection to Europe. Through a comprehensive examination of the term “Pre-Columbian” and its detrimental impacts on Indigenous cultures, this Article begins the process of removing problematic language from cultural heritage law.