Mark Gulezian/National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian
Martin E. Sullivan, who presided over the return of 12 sacred wampum belts to the Onondaga Indian Nation, walked on February 25.

Martin Sullivan, Who Led the Return of Sacred Wampum, Walks On


He may not have been Native American, but Martin Sullivan saw to the return of 12 sacred wampum belts to the Onondaga Indian Nation before it was required by law to do so. It was 1989 and he was the director of the New York State Museum in Albany, New York.

Sullivan passed away in his home February 25 in Piney Point, Maryland of kidney failure. He was 70. But it’s important to remember what he started with returning the sacred wampum.

It was a controversial agreement at a time when other museum executives were hesitant to confront the issue, Carole Huxley, the state’s deputy commissioner for cultural education at the time, told the Times Union.

“It was a very big deal, and it’s a law now. Not (just) here, but across the country,” Huxley, who first worked with Sullivan at the National Endowment for the Humanities, told the paper. “People in other museums didn’t want to have to think about it. Do we own these things? Did we not take them away from (these) people properly?”

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires museums and other federal agencies to return cultural items to tribal descendants, was enacted on November 16, 1990.

The Onondaga Nation website has a piece written by Chief Irving Powless Jr. from October 21, 1989—the day the 12 belts were delivered to the nation. Powless says in his accounting of that day that 600 people came to the longhouse for the arrival of the belts.

“Looking out the longhouse window, I could see the people surrounding the vans. The first of the 12 belts began its journey back into the longhouse. Each belt was covered in a case wrapped inside of white foam sheet. It was impossible to tell what belt it was,” Powless writes. “The wrappings were removed and the first belt was the Tadadaho belt. Soon all the belts were in view and everyone pressed forward for a better view.”


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