Indigenous Americans to receive lists of artifacts Museums required by law to share information

November 16, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO STAFF WRITER HOLLY SELBY CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — CHICAGO -- Hundreds, possibly thousands, of letters from museums across the United States will descend on the Northern Cheyenne tribe this week. William Tallbull expects this unusual paper snowfall to bring information about missing pieces of his people's past and culture.

The scene at the Northern Cheyenne tribal council in Lame Deer, Mont. -- population 1,918 -- will be duplicated, in varying degrees, at more than 750 councils and other bodies representing Native Americans, a broad designation often used by anthropologists to include American Indians and natives of Alaska and Hawaii.

The information from museums around the country is expected to bring a mixture of surprise, anger and frustration.

Surprise, says Mr. Tallbull, chairman of the Northern Cheyenne's cultural commission, because the tribes will learn that sacred and culturally significant objects thought to have been buried or destroyed many years ago somehow ended up in museums. Anger, because they will realize how sacred objects have been handled, even by those museums that have tried to be respectful by removing religious objects from display. And frustration, because the tribes may not have the financial or other resources to seek the repatriation of the objects.

Yet Mr. Tallbull believes the tribes will do whatever they can to get these objects back.

"Our lives have been very difficult, and these items represent a time when we had physical and spiritual well-being," he says.

Under a 1990 law, museums that receive federal dollars and have "Native American cultural items" have until today to send summaries of certain of their artifacts to every indigenous U.S. tribe or group represented in their collections. The summaries, in effect, are invitations for the groups to visit the museums and seek more information about the objects, if not press for their repatriation.

To compile the summaries, curators have struggled with old and often incomplete museum records and flawed information about the current names and locations of tribes.

At the Baltimore Museum of Art,staff members have put together lists of its 1,000-piece collection of Native American art. About 500 pages of inventories have been sent out to about 100 different addresses throughout the country, but none in Maryland, says Kathie Fernstrom, associate curator for the arts of Africa, the Americas and Oceania.

"The law is meant to open a dialog with Native American tribes," says Ms. Fernstrom.

The BMA collection includes a large number of Navajo blankets from southwestern United States, and basketry and beadwork from tribes such as the Sioux and the Tohono O'dham, she says.

"We don't have human remains, so that part of the law wasn't applicable," says Brenda Richardson, deputy for art at the BMA. "The sacred objects are harder to define. But you make the lists and then you sit back and wait for authorized tribes to contact you. Our policy is, should everything fall into place, should there be objects that are authenticated by the tribe, the museum would return them."

In Maryland, there are several groups of American Indians including the Piscataway and Nanticoke, but none are formally recognized astribes by the U.S. Bureau of Indians Affairs.

The cause of all this research and reflection is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, signed into law on Nov. 16, 1990. The law -- like a 1989 act that covers the Smithsonian Institution -- was an attempt to find a middle ground between indigenous groups, who demanded the return of their ancestors' remains and significant cultural artifacts from museums, and museum officials, who feared their collections would be jeopardized by claims.

"This is not a piece of legislation intended to loot museums, but to return certain objects that museums don't have a right to possess," says C. Timothy McKeown, program leader for the act at the National Park Service in Washington.

Museums covered by the law are to mail by today brief descriptions of items that fit three categories: sacred objects, objects of cultural patrimony and unassociated funerary objects.

By Nov. 16, 1995, the fifth anniversary of the act, museums are to complete the inventories of their Native American human remains and associated funerary objects, or those items that came with the remains.The government may fine museums that don't comply with the act.

The summaries and inventories must be prepared for every Indian, Inuit and Hawaiian group represented in a collection. By some estimates, the act affects more than 750 indigenous groups and 2,500 to 3,000 museums.

The law also establishes a seven-member review committee to monitor compliance with the act and hear disputes over the right of possession.

According to Jonathan Haas, a committee member and a vice president at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, museums may keep objects if they can prove they have proper title to them, though determining right of possession is perhaps the murkiest area of the law. But museums may not claim a right of possession for human remains.

"After 500 years, people are finally figuring it out," says Samson Keahna, a member of the Mesquakie tribe of Tama, Iowa, and executive director of the American Indian Center in Chicago, a social service and cultural agency. "If I dug up bodies from a cemetery, I'd be arrested."

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