Wounded Knee artifacts highlight slow repatriations
BARRE, Mass. – One by one, artifacts allegedly taken from the Native Americans slain at Wounded Knee Creek emerged from the dark, cluttered display cases where they had stood for more than a century at a museum in rural Massachusetts.
Moccasins, necklaces, clothing, ceremonial pipes, tools and other items were neatly arranged against white backgrounds as a photographer dutifully took pictures under bright studio lights.
It was a key step in returning dozens of artifacts on display at the Founders Museum in Barre to tribes in South Dakota who had been seeking them since the 1990s.
“It’s really personal,” said Leola One Feather, of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, as she watched the process as part of a two-person tribal delegation last week. “It may be sad for them to lose these items, but it’s even sadder for us because we’ve been looking for them for so long.”
Recent efforts to repatriate human remains and other culturally significant objects such as those in the Founders’ Museum represent important and solemn times for the tribes. But they also underline the slow pace and the monumental task at hand.
Some 870,000 Native American artifacts — including nearly 110,000 human remains — that should be returned to tribes under federal law remain in the possession of universities, museums and other institutions across the country, according to a study by the Associated Press on data kept by the national park. Service.
The University of California, Berkeley tops the list, followed closely by the Ohio History Connection, the state historical society. State museums and universities in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Alabama, Illinois, and Kansas as well as Harvard University round out the other major institutions.
And that’s not even counting items held by private institutions such as the Founders Museum, which maintains that it does not receive federal funds and therefore does not fall under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, the law of 1990 governing the return of tribal objects by institutions receiving federal money.
“They’ve had over three decades,” says Shannon O’Loughlin, chief executive of the American Indian Affairs Association, a national group that helps tribes repatriate. “The time for talks is over. Enough reports and studies. It’s time to go home.”
Museum officials say they have stepped up efforts with additional funding and staff, but continue to struggle to identify artifacts collected in the early years of archaeology. They also say that federal regulations governing repatriations remain long and cumbersome.
Dan Mogulof, deputy vice chancellor at UC Berkeley, said the university is committed to repatriating all of the 123,000 artifacts in question “in the coming years at a rate that suits the tribes.”
In January, the university repatriated the remains of at least 20 victims of the 1860 Indian Island Massacre to the Wiyot Tribe in Humboldt County, California. But her Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology still holds more than 9,000 sets of ancestral remains, mostly from Bay Area tribes.
“We recognize the great harm and pain we have caused to Native Americans,” Mogulof said. “Our work will not be finished until all the ancestors are home.”
At the Ohio History Connection, officials are working to create an intertribal cemetery to help bury the ancestral remains of tribes forced out of Ohio as the nation grew, says Alex Wesaw, director of Native American relations. organisation.
The institution took similar steps in 2016 when it created a cemetery in northeastern Ohio for the Delaware tribes of Oklahoma to rebury nearly 90 ancestors who had been stored away for centuries. in Pennsylvania museums.
To complicate matters, some of its more than 7,000 ancestral remains and 110,000 artifacts are thousands of years old, making it difficult to determine which modern tribe or tribes they should be referred to, Wesaw said.
At the Founders Museum, about 70 miles west of Boston, one of the challenges has been figuring out what the Wounded Knee Massacre really is, says Ann Meilus, chair of the museum’s board of trustees.
Some tribesmen claim up to 200 items are from victims of the massacre, but Meilus said museum officials believe it was less than a dozen, based on discussions with a member of the tribe more than ten years ago.
The collection was donated by Barre native Frank Root, a 19th-century traveling showman who claimed to have acquired the items from a man responsible for digging mass graves after the massacre.
Among the macabre collection was a lock of hair believed to have been severed from Chief Spotted Elk’s scalp, which the museum returned to one of the chief Lakota Sioux’s descendants in 1999. It also includes a “ghost shirt”, a piece of clothing sacred that some members of the tribe tragically believed could make them bulletproof.
“He kind of overdid it,” Meilus said of Root. “We actually don’t know if any of the objects came from Wounded Knee.”
More than 200 men, women, children and the elderly were killed on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1890 in one of the worst massacres of Native Americans in the country. The killings marked a watershed moment in the border battles the US military waged against the tribes.
The US Department of the Interior recently proposed changes to the federal repatriation process that establish more specific timelines, clearer definitions and stiffer penalties for non-compliance.
Tribal leaders say these measures are long overdue, but do not address other fundamental issues, such as insufficient federal funding for tribes to carry out repatriation work.
Many tribes also oppose the requirement to explain the cultural significance of an object sought for repatriation, including how it is used in tribal ceremonies, says Brian Vallo, former governor of the Pueblo of Acoma. in New Mexico who participated in the 2020 repatriation of 20 ancestors from the National Museum of Finland and their reburial at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.
“This knowledge is only for us,” he said. “It’s never shared.”
Stacy Laravie, historical preservation manager for the Ponca Tribe in Nebraska, is optimistic. Museum leaders are sincerely seeking to rectify the past, following the national judgment on racism that has reverberated in the country in recent years.
Last month, she traveled with a tribal delegation to Harvard to receive the tomahawk from her ancestor, Native American civil rights leader Chief Standing Bear. She is also working with the university’s Peabody Museum to potentially repatriate other items important to her tribe.
“We’re catching up on decades of stuff thrown under the rug,” Laravie said. “But I believe their hearts are in the right place.”
Back at the Founders Museum, Jeffrey Not Help Him, an Oglala Sioux member whose family survived the Wounded Knee Massacre, hopes the items can go home this fall, as the museum has suggested.
“We can’t wait to put them in a good place,” Not Help Him said. “A place of honor.”