Courtesy Portland Art Museum
In 2015, 18 medicine bags from the Portland Art Museum’s Native American collection went back to the Crow people in Montana.

After 25 Years of NAGPRA: Moving Beyond Paralysis

Frances Madeson

Though Canada does not have a NAGPRA-like repatriation law, it does have an ethical agreement which is titled, perhaps aspirationally, Turning the Page, A Task Force on Repatriation. As became evident in the “After the Inventories: Museums Becoming Stewards” panel held April 21 at Indian Arts Research Center of the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, the page on the grim exploitative relationships between museums and “source communities” or “communities of origin” has yet to be turned.

According to Dr. Chip Colwell of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, 26 years after the enactment of NAGPRA, 70 percent of human remains in U.S. museums have not been affiliated with any tribes. He calculated that at the current rate it will take 238 years for them just to be affiliated, much less returned. Dr. Jennifer Kramer, of the University of British Columbia, Museum of Anthropology said she’s aware of just four repatriations at her institution.

The discussion, moderated by Tony Chavarria, curator at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture with Dr. Joseph Suina, a former governor of Cochiti Pueblo, brought to light important changes in attitudes about museum stewardship in the post-NAGPRA landscape.

At Kramer’s institution they use different nomenclature: the word “objects” has been replaced by “belongings.” Their idea is to make the belongings more accessible to the people to whom they formerly belonged. The museum becomes a place where the people with a cultural affinity to the belongings also belong, “not just a place where their things are displayed in a way they don’t like.”

Seen here are: Tony Chavarria, Dr. Jennifer Kramer, Dr. Joseph Suina, and Dr. Chip Colwell at the NAGPRA panel held April 21 at Indian Arts Research Center of the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe. (Courtesy School for Advanced Research)

Kramer explained how her museum works with communities. “We ask them, how would you like to see your objects displayed? Often times, this is an engagement that they wanted. They can see their belongings privately, spend as much time as they want with them. Also we loan them back home. We’re always happy when an object does its cultural service and adds to its life.”

Her belief is that if a museum can demonstrate to a community that it’s taking good care of its belongings while picking up the price tag of stewardship, the relationships can be mutually beneficial.

There was an interesting tension between her view and Suina’s, who focused on why tribes and museums often have difficult communication. In his view, understanding breaks down in the face of conflicting knowledge systems, or epistemologies. In Western society knowledge is considered to be democratic, freely available to all who seek it. Not so in pueblo society where not everyone is entitled to gain access to sacred knowledges, and where there is a well-established hierarchy of who is allowed to know about the specifics of spiritual practices and beliefs that involve sacred objects. As he explained it, “Certain knowledges have to be earned.” So when outsiders ask for what they consider to be basic information, they may be unaware that just by posing these kinds of questions they are crossing unseen lines of effrontery.

He recalled a gut-wrenching experience in 1998 when in order to get a sacred item returned to Cochiti the members of the Sacred Society would’ve been required to answer three questions:

When is it used?

How is it used?

Who is it used by?

“We couldn’t disclose that information,” he explained. “That information is only for those who have been ordained.” The religious leaders had to walk away. Where before there had been excitement about a potential homecoming of the utmost importance to communal identity and memory, now there was agony because of a shockingly culturally ignorant and insensitive process.

Dr. Joseph Suina at the NAGPRA panel held April 21 at Indian Arts Research Center of the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe. (Courtesy School for Advanced Research)

Colwell spoke of another kind of corrective: efforts at the Denver Museum to improve inventories that had often been prepared slapdash “under the crush of the new law;” lists that fulfilled the law’s technical requirements but with inadequate or misleading labeling and descriptors, and that added to the confusion about who had what, where.

Kramer’s museum co-developed a database with three First Nations. “It was very sandboxed,” she said, “built as communities told us they wanted it.” It’s called the Reciprocal Research Network, and it uses pull-down search systems that have been tested with both elders and youth. Users can search 22 different institutions’ holdings, including major museums, and use it to create virtual exhibits.

But for Colwell, these kind of advances, no matter how useful practically beg a more essential question: “How can projects move beyond fundamental colonial relationships, where museums own and control everything? How can we fundamentally re-empower source communities to control their own heritage?”

Chavarria put the question to the panel in a slightly different way: “What can museums do to benefit a tribe on many different levels?”

Suina called for assistance in funding to enable tribes to hire administrative staff.

Kramer thinks museums can promote the idea that “we’re in this together,” and can educate the non-Native public. She recalled displaying a sacred mask that had been wrapped so it couldn’t be seen. “We made a statement. We don’t show the object, but we show the issue of privacy.”

As the last of the four panel discussions that comprised “Forging New Landscapes in Cultural Stewardship & Repatriation” came to an end, one could catch a glimpse of those new landscapes where aesthetic displays of tribal creativity are not purchased at the price of human dignity. Or as Suina put it:

“It’s [NAGPRA] gotten us talking; 25 years is just a drop in the bucket. The law is the law; but the disposition, it’s going to take time.”

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