FW: Museums and Tribes - A Tricky Truce
FW: Museums and Tribes - A Tricky Truce
From: Don [mailto:dbain@...]
Sent: Sunday, December 24, 2000 1:38 PM
Subject: Museums and Tribes - A Tricky Truce
Museums and Tribes: A Tricky Truce
December 24, 2000
By STEPHEN KINZER
ON a cold afternoon a little more than a year ago, members of several
Tlingit Indian clans in southeastern Alaska gathered for a
transcendently emotional ceremony that few of them had ever dared to
imagine. An intricately carved wooden beaver that plays a central role
in their history and culture was coming home after an absence of nearly
This carving once graced the prow of a war canoe that ferried supplies
to these clans in the wake of a bombardment of their communities by the
United States Navy in 1881. One clan member, acting on his own, later
sold it to a traveling collector, and it disappeared.
In 1998, a clan elder was visiting a storeroom at the American Museum
of Natural History in New York when, he later recalled, he heard an
"inner voice" calling him to one shelf. When he found the shelf, he was
astonished to see the wooden beaver staring out at him.
Under the provisions of a sweeping law enacted 10 years ago, Tlingit
clans asked the museum to return the carving, and museum officials
"The day it came back was something you couldn't even imagine," said
Leonard John, a clan member who helped arrange the return. "The whole
village was at the dock. People were crying and weeping.
"This is not just art to us," Mr. John continued. "It's something far
deeper, something with a healing and spiritual aspect. When our
artifacts left us and were scattered across America, they left a void.
We lost our honor and our value system. We were overwhelmed by social
problems like suicide and alcoholism. Now that they're coming back,
people look at them and feel their honor and their self-respect coming
back as well. There are still a lot of festering wounds, but the process
of healing has begun."
The law under which the beaver prow was repatriated, the Native
American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, was signed by President
George Bush in November 1990 after years of discussion among scientists,
museum curators and Indian groups. It seeks to reconcile two profoundly
different value systems, one based on the primacy of reason and science
and the other revolving around spiritual and religious values.
In the decade since the law was passed, it has had a profound effect on
museums and the philosophy on which they are based. At the same time, it
has had incalculable emotional and social impact on Indian tribes across
the country that have recovered long-lost artifacts, many of which have
enormous spiritual significance, as well as the remains of thousands of
When the law was first enacted, some Indian leaders feared that they
were about to begin a period of bitter clashes with defiant museum
curators. Some curators feared that their collections would be gutted as
they were forced to return huge numbers of artifacts. Ten years later,
however, both sides agree that their fears were exaggerated, and many
say the law has actually increased understanding between tribes and
"I've visited quite a few museums and generally found them to be very
friendly and welcoming," said Dorothy Davids, who directs repatriation
efforts for the Stockbridge-Munsee band of the Mohican Nation, now based
in Wisconsin. "It was rough going for a while because museums really
kind of hate to give up what they have, but now there's a law. Most of
them respect that."
There are still some areas of conflict, especially over efforts by some
tribes to recover remains that are many thousands of years old and that
scientists say should be studied for vital clues about the history of
human migration to the American continent. But many curators have come
to agree that Indians have a right to recover their sacred artifacts and
the bones of those they can legitimately claim as ancestors.
Indians involved in the reclamation process have also come to respect
the role museums have played in preserving and displaying artifacts that
might otherwise have been lost.
In some cases, museums have reached agreements with tribes under which
the museums keep artifacts but agree to treat them in special ways. Some
have been taken off public display, others are stored in rooms that face
in a particular direction, and still others are periodically sprinkled
with chopped tobacco or ground corn.
The 1990 law affects every museum and federal agency that owns "Native
American human remains and associated funerary objects" as well as
"unassociated funerary objects, sacred objects or objects of cultural
patrimony." It requires each museum and agency to compile an inventory
of its holdings, identify them by tribal origin and notify existing
tribes of objects that appear to come from that tribe's tradition.
Under the law, museums must return all remains and artifacts to any
tribe that requests them and that can prove a "cultural affiliation"
with the tribe from which they came.
American museums hold the remains of an estimated 500,000 Indians as
well as millions of Indian artifacts, many of which come from graves. In
the 10 years since the law was enacted, according to the National Park
Service, museums and federal agencies have returned about 20,000 sets of
human remains and more than 385,000 funerary objects, sacred objects and
"objects of cultural patrimony."
Specialists say the number of objects is misleadingly high because it
includes every bead and pottery shard found in an Indian grave. But
among the returned objects are also hundreds of important and beautiful
artifacts that have been prizes in museum collections.
Some scientists and curators say the return of these artifacts has hurt
their ability to explain the American past to visitors and researchers.
Many concede, however, that their fear that the law would result in the
wholesale dismantling of museum collections has proved unfounded.
Debate over questions that the 1990 law raises has remained intense.
"It's a big issue that's very important for museums, for scientific
researchers and for Indian tribes," said Keith Kintigh, an
anthropologist who is president of the Society for American Archaeology.
"Native Americans have interests in the past and in the material
remains of the past," Mr. Kintigh said. "Some people argue that this is
religion trying to assert itself over science, but we don't see it that
way. Our position is that there are Native American rights, but that
science and research are also legitimate. They have to be balanced.
That's exactly what the law tries to do, and I think it's been pretty
"Take these beautiful pottery vessels that were interred with Indians a
thousand years ago," Mr. Kintigh said. "On the one hand, there are
people who think those objects should be underground beside the people
they were buried with. But most museums with Indian collections display
funerary objects. They're enormous cultural achievements and have a lot
to tell us. In many cases, they've even been used as models for the
revival and continuation of traditional artistic styles.
"People's feelings on questions like this are evolving. My guess is
that to the extent tribal people get together with curators and
scientists, pressure on existing collections is going to lessen. We
don't see their claims as illegitimate, but they come to see that there
is value to learning about the past in a systematic way."
The recognition by some Indian leaders that funerary and sacred objects
can serve a positive purpose if they remain in museums is only one of
several factors that have moderated their demands for repatriation.
Indian tribes receive little financial support for offices that
organize claims for sacred objects. As a result, many objects that might
be claimed have not been.
In some parts of the country, especially in Western states, Indian
cemeteries are being found regularly as roads are built and flood waters
recede during droughts. Indian tribes often work vigorously to protect
those remains. Since much of their energy is devoted to these urgent
cases, little is left to deal with objects that are safely in museum
vaults or display cases and will still be available to be claimed years
or decades from now.
According to several museum curators, it was common practice for
curators in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to treat masks and
other Indian artifacts with strong chemicals, including arsenic, to
protect them from decay and insect infestation. As a result, they are
now toxic and cannot be used in the ceremonies for which they were made.
At public meetings, tribal leaders have criticized federal agencies,
including the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management,
for what they say are failures to devote enough money and energy to
processing repatriation claims. They have also complained that while
some museums are evidently committed to complying with the 1990 law,
others seem less than enthusiastic.
Some Indian leaders maintain that all objects from all non-European
cultures in North America belong in the hands of Indians, regardless of
whether those alive today can claim kinship with the cultures that
produced the objects. The 1990 law, however, rejects that so-called
"pan-Indian" argument. It requires that the claimant tribe prove it is a
"lineal descendant" of the tribe from which the artifacts or remains
As a result of this provision, the law has served some tribes better
than others. Southwestern tribes like the Hopi and Navajo, for example,
have maintained cultural continuity over centuries and therefore have
strong claims to objects in museum collections. Other tribes, including
many in the Eastern United States that were decimated by successive
waves of European settlement, have more trouble proving their descent
from tribes that existed long ago.
"It was never the intent of the legislation to bring in trucks and haul
away museum collections," said Jonathan Haas, a curator at the Field
Museum in Chicago, which has one of the country's richest collections of
Indian artifacts, and which has returned about a dozen important
artifacts in recent years. "It was intended to provide a mechanism for
the return of a very small number of very important pieces that never
should have been taken from their place of origin in the first place.
"One very positive result of the law is that museums have become much
more consultative with tribes about our use of objects," Mr. Haas said.
"It has made us more sensitive, and it has also shown the tribes that we
are becoming better keepers of this material and indeed have been good
keepers in terms of the physical well-being of the pieces."
Although Mr. Haas and many other curators say tribes have good reason
to reclaim some artifacts, that opinion is not unanimous. Curators who
are unhappy with the law and its implications, however, normally speak
only if assured of anonymity. They fear appearing anti-Indian or drawing
attention to their collections.
"The language of the law is very loose," said a curator whose museum
has grudgingly returned several artifacts to Indian tribes. "In effect,
it says that museums have to return anything of religious or cultural
significance, which arguably covers everything we have. The standard of
proof is very low. It doesn't matter how we got it. If it's in a public
collection and claimants want it back, we have to enter into
"This contravenes the whole notion of us being able to assemble objects
from different cultures," the curator said. "It assumes that we did
something wrong and that we should give back what we have collected. But
a lot of people think museums display cultural artifacts better than
anyone else. That's our mission. And as this process proceeds, many
tribes are starting to agree."
The debate over the law and its implications has involved not just
curators but also scientists and Indian advocates. It has been a hot
topic at many conferences and has filled reams of paper in specialized
newspapers and journals.
G. A. Clark, a professor of anthropology at Arizona State University,
staked out one side of the debate in a recent article in the Society for
American Archeology Bulletin that has attracted much attention. He said
laws like the one passed in 1990 reflect a "paroxysm of national guilt"
and "strike at the heart of a scientific archaeology because they
elevate the cultural traditions and religious beliefs of Indians to the
level of science."
"I think archaeology is, or should be, a `sciencelike' endeavor as
opposed to a political enterprise, an industry, a platform for promoting
a social agenda, or a public relations exercise," Mr. Clark asserted in
the article. "We all lose if, for reasons of political expediency,
Indians rebury their past. One of the many ironies in the situation is
that many Native American groups who favor the preservation and study of
archaeological and skeletal collections are being co-opted by the
actions of small but vocal activist minorities in cahoots with ignorant
legislators willing to sell the profession down the pike for the sake of
short-term political gains."
In response to views like this, other scholars and Indian advocates
assert that according to Indian theology, disturbing the remains of the
dead threatens not only tribal spirits but the harmony of the whole
world. "To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their final
resting place is sacred ground," Chief Seattle of the Suquamish tribe
told an interviewer in the 1850's, "while you wander far from the graves
of your ancestors, and seemingly without regret."
One apparently unintended consequence of the law has been that Indian
tribes have laid claim to several sets of very old human remains that
have been found in the United States since the mid-1990's. Indians claim
these as remains of their ancestors, since their religious tradition
tells them that they were always present on the North American
continent. Many scientists say that claim is dubious at best, and
complain that potentially thrilling discoveries about the early peopling
of the Americas may never be made if they do not have the chance to
study the remains they unearth.
This issue has come into public view largely because of an intensifying
legal controversy over the skeleton of a man, apparently about 9,000
years old, that was found in 1996 in Kennewick, Wash.
Five Indian tribes in the Northwest have collectively claimed Kennewick
Man as an ancestor and want to rebury his remains. Scientists are
protesting. They say the skeleton has features suggesting that it may be
of Japanese or Polynesian origin, and that in any case no tribe or
ethnic group in the world can trace its ancestry back 9,000 years.
In September, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit ruled in favor of the
tribes, saying he believed they were "culturally affiliated" with the
Kenewick skeleton. A group of anthropologists, however, has filed a
lawsuit seeking to block the reburial.
"When the law was passed, no one had any idea that we would be
discovering remains this old," said Cleone Hawkinson, an Oregon-based
physical anthropologist who is president of Friends of the American
Past, an organization that is fighting Indian claims to Kennewick Man
and several other sets of ancient human remains. "Native Americans are
putting in requests for things that go way beyond the intent of the law,
which says that an existing group has to prove cultural affinity with a
prior group before it can make a claim.
"It's nonsensical to say that one group which is in the geographical
area now is the only group that ever got here, and it negates the
complexity of our past," Ms. Hawkinson said. "The whole issue has become
extremely political as Indian movements have gained power and political
clout. There's a desire to reach politically correct conclusions that
will take us an extra mile toward righting the wrongs of the past. We're
pulling a dark curtain that's as bad as what happened during the Middle
Ages in Europe. To be human means to ask questions about ourselves and
our origins. We're so inter related that it's a shame to have one narrow
slice of humanity take so much control over what is becoming a really
fascinating branch of scientific study."
Despite this debate and a handful of others like it, many scientists,
museum curators and tribal leaders, more than a few of whom had expected
to be locked in bitter battles over ownership of valuable artifacts, say
the opposite has happened.
"We were told that there was going to be terrible conflict, but instead
we're holding hands with them and it's been great," said Diane Palmer,
an official of the Cape Fox tribe in Alaska who has worked to repatriate
artifacts and remains from several museums. "A lot of our people had
wrong ideas about museums, and museums had wrong ideas about some of the
tribes. This has been a really positive experience. Until the law was
enacted we had no way of even knowing where this stuff was, and now we
can not only find it but have it returned."
Many scholars consider the collection of Native American artifacts at
the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of the American Indian in
New York City to be the finest in the world. Over the last decade, the
museum has returned about 2,000 objects to Indian tribes across the
United States, in Canada and in several Latin American countries.
"We have a collection of 800,000 objects, so in a quantitative sense
the law has had a very small impact," said Rick West, the museum's
director, who is a Cheyenne Indian. "But from a qualitative standpoint I
do think it has an impact, and that impact is absolutely positive.
"As institutions of culture, museums that house these materials have a
vital interest in buttressing those cultures and supporting them into
the future," Mr. West said. "To the extent that we believe maintenance
of these cultures is important, and I think it is, museums have an
obligation to support that cultural diversity. And secondly, this
process has directly benefited museums themselves. Even a collection as
great as ours is very spottily documented, and through this process of
repatriation we've had people from native communities visiting our
collection who can inevitably tell us a great deal about objects that
are not subject to repatriation.
"When the law was first enacted in 1990 there was practically hysteria
in some parts of the museum community about what was going to happen,"
Mr. West continued. "Now most of that has faded away. Both sides have
been deliberate and thoughtful, and it has ended up benefiting both the
native and museum communities. We're talking about a huge paradigm of
cultural authority. This is not just words. It has real impact."
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