Apache Battle NYC Natural History Museum Over Sacred Objects


A persistent disagreement has kept 77 objects from being returned to the Apaches from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City for the last four years, reports the New York Times.

The museum refers to the objects, many of which are more than a century old, as “cultural items,” and the Apaches say they should be designated as “sacred” and “items of cultural patrimony,” legal classifications under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Is this a matter of semantics? Hardly.

These aren’t merely items or objects to the Apaches. As the Times explains these items are imbued with the Apache religion’s holy beings and tribal elders attribute things like alcoholism and unemployment on the reservations to unsettled spirits. The museum’s classification of the items is insulting.

“This is them telling us they know more about Apache culture than the Apaches,” Vincent Randall, cultural preservation director with the Yavapai-Apache Nation in Arizona, one of four Apache tribes allied in the dispute, told the Times.

But the museum says it meant no offense, and said in a statement that it came to the classification using NAGPRA.

“Determining classifications under NAGPRA is a complex process,” the statement said, referring to the law, “and the museum made the judgment consistent with established criteria. Upon return, the Western Apache are free to use and classify the cultural objects fully in accordance with tribal custom and traditions as they determine.”

The NAGPRA glossary includes cultural patrimony in its definition of “cultural items” but goes further to say that cultural patrimony is “an object having ongoing historical, traditional, or cultural importance central to the Native American group or culture itself, rather than property owned by an individual Native American, and which, therefore, cannot be alienated, appropriated, or conveyed by any individual regardless of whether or not the individual is a member of the Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization and such object shall have been considered inalienable by such Native American group at the time the object was separated from such group.”

The New York Times spoke with David Tarler, a training and enforcement official for the repatriation program, who said some tribes feel the use of the term “cultural patrimony” and its definition acknowledges that the items should not have been taken from the tribe in the first place. In regard to the Apache case, which he has monitored since it began in 2005, the museum calling the items cultural patrimony would be “an important matter of healing” for those tribes. “They want affirmation that they have always owned the objects tribally,” he told the Times.

Read the full story at NYTimes.com.

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