Wampanoag coordinator develops repatriation software

Cate Montana
6/28/00

MASHPEE, Mass. - Necessity is the mother of invention and Native Heritage Software, brainchild of Mashpee Wampanoag Ramona Bennett, certainly is an invention born of need.

Coordinating repatriation efforts for 67 tribes of the former Wampanoag Confederation from Massachusetts, Rhode Island and the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, Bennett found herself buried under endless files and correspondence from 72 museums around the world.

Tracking repatriation information was a nightmare. Artifacts and human remains, even those from the same archaeological site, were widely scattered. Complicating the situation was the fact that multiple digs, extending over the past 150 years, had uncovered layers of remains interred on top of one another - a Mashpee mortuary practice. Wampanoag re-interment ceremonies required human remains and artifacts to be returned to exactly the same site and placed, if possible, in exactly the same positions in which they were found.

"It was confusing," says Bennett. "A lot of times archaeologists named the site for themselves. A site may have been dug 20, 40 or even 100 years apart and been renamed. And, because there were separate archaeologists or other people who were digging in the same site, they often donated to different museums."

To cut through the confusion, Bennett decided the most reasonable approach was to develop a software program and database that could help her juggle myriad details of the repatriation process in an organized fashion. A former wooden boat builder, Bennett had no experience with computers. But she had several years experience sorting through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) process and knew what she needed.

Working with several programmers, she helped develop a digital software that would handle information such as tribal affiliation of objects, NAGPRA status, NAGPRA categories, age and description of object, inventory numbers, access codes, native place names, archaeologist's names, the date objects were donated and to which museum or institution, in what town, county, state and country.

As a person with no computer background, she wanted to make it user-friendly. She insisted they rely heavily on visual graphics and tables. The result was a program that could display reams of detailed information as well as show pictures of the objects from museums, maps, drawings of the orientation of the object(s) as they had been when uncovered, - anything pertinent to the artifacts.

The program also had a list of NAGPRA-involved museums and institutions, addresses and contacts from all over the world that she could access at a keystroke.

"For me, one of the most important uses of the database is to be sure that you have researched all of the museums possible that could have things from the same site," Bennett says. "Tribe's repatriation officers can put in inventories that pertain to museums and federal agencies and have a quick access code. It's very manageable."

Queries can be run on specific museums to find the NAGPRA-related items from their inventories that need to be repatriated and to check on how much progress a particular institution has made toward repatriation claims.

To make things even easier, Bennett says the software also includes extensive sorting and searching capabilities that can filter multiple categories to narrow searches in the four NAGPRA categories: ancestral human remains, associated funerary objects, sacred objects and items of cultural patrimony.

There are also data entry fields for tracking deliveries from museums and handling schedules for re-interment, something very important to her as a member of the Wampanoag Nation.

"The tribe developed 13 repatriation policies," she says. "One of them requires us to do simultaneous repatriation on every site. ... For example, we're working on a huge collection of almost 2,000 objects and human remains that were removed from our royal burial ground. And seven different institutions have items from the same site."

The simultaneous repatriation requires Bennett to pay meticulous attention to the field note documentation of removal by archaeologists. She researches which grave shafts hold what items and makes sure that items are reburied at the proper levels according to age. The amount of work and detail, she says, would be impossible without the software.

To help other tribes succeed in their own repatriation projects, the Wampanoag Tribe decided to market and sell the software under the appropriate name, Native Heritage Software. So far it is used in Guam and by several tribes in the Southeast and in California. The National Park Service is also using and promoting the software.

Sales of Native Heritage Software will also help the Wampanoag Tribe fund its repatriation efforts, estimated to take at least another 15 years to complete.

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