Everything we make, whether it’s basketry or regalia, comes from our heart, from our feeling of goodness, from our creator making our dances carry on forever. When the regalia don’t dance, they cry. We believe that very strongly. -David Hostler, director, Hoopa Valley Tribal Museum (northern CA)*
I used to think American Indian collections in museums were cool. Many times I’ve walked through a Native museum in sort of a stupor of reverence and a strange sense of nostalgia. I would speak in a hushed voice because I was in a sacred place. I could just feel it.
Ok, maybe I was a little overzealous. Still, I regarded these artifacts as part of the American Indian story, and they held a fascination for me. I had a good feeling toward them. What better way to preserve and learn about this culture up close and personal? What could be wrong with that?
Plenty, as it turns out. Recently I read a book that makes total sense.
Many of these museum artifacts have been stolen from tribes. Tribes believe they are living things, and they need to be returned.
It’s interesting that we get the urge to preserve things as soon as we’ve nearly destroyed them. In this case, an entire culture.
In Kennewick, a town on the plains of central Washington state, bones of a man were discovered in the Columbia River in 2006. The accidental discovery was made during the the town’s annual hydroplane races, where the river is traditionally lowered to accommodate the boaters (does that sound strange to anyone else? Anyway, I digress.) The remains were deemed to be Native, belonging to an ancient ancestor of the Columbia River tribes. Anthropologists fought fiercely against the tribes repatriating these remains, arguing that he was a “national treasure” and the “common heritage of all Americans that should be studied for the benefit of all.” Everything from academic freedom to the need for scientific knowledge was cited. The case went to the courts, which eventually sided with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, since the bones were found on property under its control. Despite repeated requests from the tribes for return so that he may have a proper burial, the Corps retains custody of Kennewick Man today.*
Similar examples abound, all throughout history. Native American graves have been looted, burial mounds have been disturbed, and remains and artifacts have been stolen in the name of “collection.” Some of these cases have seen the courts, resulting in the creation of such legislation as NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which has resulted in some success in getting regalia and other artifacts returned to tribes. A few museums, such as the ones at University of Michigan and San Francisco State University, have, after years of repeated requests from tribes, returned some artifacts.* The majority have not, which is why this awareness has become important to me.
Let’s back up further. Anthropology is the scientific study of humans, past and present. This kind of science means collecting things to study them. Collections result in museums. Over time this whole realm becomes profitable for some. Devon Mihesuah, a Choctaw historian and writer, points out “The fact that Indians exist allows these people [anthropologists, archaeologists and historians] to secure job tenure, promotion, merit increases, fellowships, notoriety, and scholarly identity – all without giving anything back to Indian communities.” While it’s true there are regulations in place for researchers such as ethical guidelines, and peer and donor reviews, Mihesuah argues for more stringent guidelines, such as: “how will your research benefit the people you study?”*
There exists something called the Wiesbaden Manifesto, a declaration that was passed after the Nazi Holocaust. In short, it required all works of art (some quite valuable) stolen from Jewish emigrants and death camp prisoners by the Nazis to be returned, if not to the owner’s descendants, at least to Germany. President Truman agreed and signed the order in 1948.*
Why can’t the same be applied here?
In the rare cases artifacts are returned to tribes, they have been so heavily poisoned that often they are considered hazardous material. For about a century museum collectors have been using chemicals to preserve findings: mercury, arsenic, thymol, DDT, naphthalene. Often when an object or human remain is repatriated, tribal members are warned to wear gloves and a breathing apparatus when handling it, and not to bury it (for risk of contaminating their groundwater), or burn it (for risk of contaminating their air). Institutions claim the money for decontamination is simply not there. Often tribes lack the funds themselves.*
So….after an arduous (and often expensive) battle to get their stolen ancestors and ancestors’ stuff back, it is too poisoned to use or to bury.
In general we love our museums, and there are some great ones out there. Look, I’m not saying stop going altogether, because some do provide valuable education in history, science, and art, but know there is another side when it comes to Indian collections. What you’re looking at….headresses, woven baskets, even human bones…..were more likely stolen in some way, and they belong to someone else. Find out how that piece of art was obtained. Sometimes items were expressly permitted to be there by the tribe (especially in smaller museums, and especially in tribal ones), but most often not. Ask a staff member, and watch them either: 1. give you a wishy-washy politic-y answer, or 2. turn beet red. After all, instead of visiting your loved one in a cemetery, imagine having to visit him through plated glass.
*Much of this information has been obtained in the book Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming by Winona LaDuke. LaDuke is Ojibwe. This book, as well as others, is listed in the Book and Film Recommendations section of this blog.)