Culture has historically provided the basis for the way individuals choose to live, including their values, customs, and traditions; it is a fundamental aspect to livelihood. In a democratic society like the United States, it is important that all cultures are upheld without under-prioritizing or discriminating against any. While this approach may seem indisputable and self-explanatory, cultural recognition in the United States was only just recently extended to international communities.
For over two decades, Manila has sought repatriation of church bells that were taken by US troops in the Philippine-American war in 1901. Now, the United States finally agrees to plan on the bells’ return at a future unspecified date.
While their theft represents the start of decades of United States rule, their return symbolizes a redress from America and the forging of future long-term relations with the Philippines as the bells are a fundamental component of the culture and history of the Philippines.
The Philippine-American war started in 1898 after Philippine, a colony at the time, was given to the United States in the Treaty of Paris. As it became increasingly apparent that the U.S. would not recognise the nascent First Philippine Republic, Filipino nationalists began to fight for independence rather than a change in leadership, igniting the initial phases of the war.
The story behind why the bells were taken during this war is one of violence. The ringing of the church bells was used to signal a surprise ambush on US troops by Filipino soldiers during which forty-eight troops were killed. In retaliation, the US military massacred citizens of the Philippines on Samar island, burned down houses, and destroyed food supplies. They also took three church bells as a token of the battle.
The long term effects of American colonialism —the stripping of historical cultural identities— can still been seen today. Currently Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, is taught less frequently than English, despite the role that language has in maintaining Filipino cultural heritage. Racism and discrimination against Filipinos are very prominent even within its own society, with Filipino women being overwhelmingly perceived as undesirable partners compared to white women.
Many people question the validity of concern for cultural objects and of cultural repatriation, but cultural repatriation is necessary because it is returning culture that was originally stolen. These stolen objects are symbols of cultural heritage that is a fundamental aspect of where they originated. Refusing to repatriate sends the message that the takers are the “owners” of the culture from which objects are stolen from, which is very far from the truth.
Many of those who oppose repatriation argue that the value of presenting artifacts in encyclopedic museums is the ability to raise cultural awareness and that no modern nation-state can claim past artifacts as their own. Nevertheless, American museums that possess artifacts from other countries are largely self-regulated. Private possession and collection of historically significant pieces inherently devalue symbols of culture as they are then valued monetarily rather than their culturally.
Many European museums have begun discussing “loaning” artifacts and artwork to their countries of origin, despite being originally taken from their through colonialism. “Loaning” only sends the message that the artifacts never truly belonged to the country in which they were created.
It is finally time to start addressing the mistakes our ancestors made. Ensuring that the United States upholds its promise to return these bells to the Philippines is the first step to complete repatriation. Hundreds of years ago in the fifteenth century, European colonialism became a precedent. Today, let’s hope the returning of the bells starts a new precedent of returning that which was taken and forging new relationships.