Skip to content

New rule may help Native American tribes reclaim artifacts

DSCF0240a.jpg

For the first time in a dozen years, federally funded museums like this one will be required to furnish Native American tribes with lists of tribal artifacts in their collections within the next six months. This may make it easier for tribes to reclaim lost or stolen items and sacred objects. (Kevin Livelli/CNS)

DSCF0245a.jpg

The new regulation is especially important for those Native American tribes that have been recognized by the federal government in the last 12 years or so, since they can now use the law to help repatriate their sacred objects. (Kevin Livelli/CNS)

It was a hot and arid day in Pecos, N.M., when the elders and leaders of the Jemez Pueblo tribe welcomed an outsider into the fold: archaeologist William Whatley.

Wearing colorful headbands, the old men sat down on the ground with Whatley. Then they began drawing images in the dust--images of bones, masks and pottery that were missing or had been looted from the tribe. The elders implored Whatley to use his scientific knowledge to find the objects and help return them to the tribe. Not an easy task.

That was nearly 20 years ago. Now, for other tribes searching for lost or stolen items, the process may get a lot easier.

In mid-March, the Department of the Interior’s National NAGPRA program, which helps carry out the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, announced a regulation requiring museums, universities and federal agencies in possession of Native American art and artifacts to provide new lists of their inventories and to share them with all federally recognized tribes within six months.

The rule, which takes effect April 20, marks the first time in a dozen years that museums and federal agencies have had to share with tribes what’s in their collections. This process may uncover many items missing for years, and it may encourage tribes to start making repatriation claims to get their artifacts back.

Repatriation is a process frequently fraught with tension between museums and tribes. Curators and scholars have an interest in preserving items for their educational and research value. For the tribes, reclaiming their objects can have a spiritual and cultural significance. But for some, it can lead to big business. A reclaimed object can establish a tribe’s right to land, which it might want to develop--sometimes into a casino.

“This promises to have a big impact for many tribes, especially those recently recognized by the federal government,” said Dr. Rayna Green, a Cherokee and the curator and director of the American Indian program at the Smithsonian Institution. “And it’s not just about cultural heritage. It’s about money and land and property. This is America, after all.”

Yet even if the new rule helps tribes find many sacred objects, it won’t necessarily help them overcome the many obstacles inherent in the repatriation process.

“Tribes and museums approach decisions about sacred objects carefully,” said Dr. Timothy McKeown, the senior program coordinator at the NAGPRA office and the man responsible for overseeing the entire repatriation process. “Repatriation is not just something you can do overnight.”

To begin with, tribes can struggle with issues of confidentiality when filing a claim. Many tribes, especially the Pueblo groups in the Southwest, have strict customs and rules about sharing tribal information with outsiders. Yet the law requires a tribe to reasonably establish its historical connection to a particular object.

The Pueblo Indians of San Eldefanso made a claim in the mid-1990s but backed away when a dispute over the claim led to litigation in federal court. They didn’t want to have to testify and reveal tribal secrets.

Even putting together the claim can be a challenge. In many instances, a tribe's spoken language--like that of the Jemez Pueblo--isn’t written down and can't be easily transferred into the legalese necessary to file a claim. And hiring lawyers costs money, something many smaller tribes lack.

When claims are readied for filing, McKeown says tribes sometimes argue among themselves and with neighboring tribes over who has the right to proceed with that claim, who should act as spokesman and who will be responsible for the objects once they return.

One such case now under review by McKeown’s office involves funerary objects and human remains that were recently found in Chaco Canyon National Park in New Mexico. Representatives from Pueblo, Navajo and Hopi tribes have all made competing claims for the same objects.

The tribes’ competing claims can stir feuds that go back hundreds of years. “It has to do with very old notions of clan and kinship and philosophical and religious ideas about death and the afterlife,” Green said.

“The issue is important because what you and I call artifacts are in their worlds living tribal members with the same rights as people,” Whatley said.

Once objects are successfully returned to tribes, one serious issue frequently remains. Many of the items belonging to tribes in the Iroquois Six Nations and the Hopi Nation are perishable--cornhusk masks or headdresses with feathers. When these items come into a museum’s collection, they are often sprayed with arsenic or another pesticide for preservation.

But upon return, the masks and headdresses are often worn in ceremonies, endangering the lives of tribal members and leaving the museum potentially liable for any resulting injury or illness.

“That’s something we in the museum world are trying to remedy,” Green said. “We’re looking now into alternative means of preservation, like flash freezing objects.”

Though the path to repatriation may take many years, Whatley says the end result will be worth the trouble for tribes. Over nine years, he has helped return thousands of objects to the Pueblo Jemez from museums around the country.

Back in dusty Pecos, thousands of Indians gathered in 1999 to welcome home their “tribal members.” Museum curators and staff were on hand too, watching from a respectful distance.

Whatley, however, was by then a special guest of the tribe and had special access. He said he felt something that day that transcended science, money, land and all his pre-existing notions about Native American culture.

The experience, he said, has stayed with him and opened his eyes to a new way of looking at life.

“There’s a lot more to this on the spiritual side than many non-Indians realize,” he said.

E-mail: kjl2115@columbia.edu