How We Know

Scholars who have addressed the history of the repatriation movement focus on why Americans treated Native remains and objects the way they did. American collecting of these objects, they argue, should be understood as a form of “nation building,” in which Americans came to view the dead bodies of Indians as trophies.

In Europe, displaying non-Western people as “living exotics” or “wildmen” and collecting objects they made began in the 15th century and continued as European states occupied other continents. In colonial America, Indian graves and sacred objects were desecrated soon after Europeans arrived. In the Midwest, Black Hawk’s remains were disinterred shortly after his death in 1838 and his bones were put on public display. The remains of other Indian leaders were so treated. In the 1860s, the federal government legitimized the collection of American Indian remains when the Surgeon General advocated procuring Indian heads and other body parts for study at the Army Medical Museum in Washington. This encouraged the practice of decapitating Indians and shipping their brains to Washington.

Scientists used collections of bones at first in a misguided effort to study human evolution. Associated with the idea of racial hierarchy was the belief that each “race” had a uniquely shaped skull. By the 20th century, burials on public land were considered public property, and Indian remains were taken from massacre sites, battlegrounds, prisons, schools, and cemeteries (including mounds). Eventually, over 18,000 Native American remains were stored at the Smithsonian Institution alone.

In the late 19th century, international fairs like the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago exhibited living and dead Indians, both for the crowd’s entertainment and to highlight the supposed primitivism of indigenous peoples. Carnivals had these kinds of dehumanizing exhibits, and private collectors bought “Indian relics” or “curiosities”—skulls, bones, pots—to display in their homes. In fact, collecting Indian skulls was a popular “hobby.” Scholars writing about this period describe such exhibits as “displays of power.” Native people were transformed into alien outsiders, while majority Americans saw themselves as the “true” Americans destined to possess Indian land and property.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the federal government’s assimilation program discouraged the practice of Native religion and lifeways, and the prevailing opinion was that Indians were disappearing and their cultures dying. Museums purchased or obtained as donations thousands of Indian-manufactured objects from Indian communities. Sometimes Indian exhibits were displayed alongside dinosaurs or other extinct animals. Indian collections sometimes were studied, but often the goal was to safeguard them. Displays of “traditional” objects conveyed the message that Indian people lived in the past, not the present.

Studies of NAGPRA’s implementation often conclude that the repatriation process is undermined by the federal government’s continued domination in Indian relations. For example, the law specified that federally-recognized tribes were entitled to repatriate items, yet the more appropriate group might be clans or religious societies. Moreover, non-recognized tribes could not make repatriation claims. And, the government did not provide adequate funding to enable tribes to send representatives to museums or build a case for repatriation.

Despite the criticism of NAGPRA, museum professionals have to implement NAGPRA requests. These claims can present complicated problems of interpretation. Exactly how is cultural affiliation established when museum records lack this information? Tribes may have competing interests. NAGPRA regulations allow a tribe that had its “aboriginal occupancy” of certain territories validated in land claim cases to claim objects excavated there, even though the objects predate the tribe’s arrival. Yet, non-federally recognized tribes who can claim a cultural affiliation cannot repatriate objects under NAGPRA. When members of a tribe do not agree on a repatriation plan, consultations may be difficult for museum personnel. How are “religious leaders” to be identified? How is “sacred” to be defined. Such definitions can change over time, as can the kinds of objects that have central importance to a tribe. What are “grave goods?” In the case of mounds, not all were burial mounds, so identifying what objects are “unassociated” grave goods is difficult. Actually, there are conflicting views on such issues between Indians and scholars, scholars and scholars, and Indians and Indians.


4:38 mi.

Video Transcript

Despite these kinds of problems, museum professionals have found that the participation of Native people in consultations and negotiations has greatly contributed to their institutions’ missions. For tribes, repatriation has at a minimum humanized Native people by establishing their right to dignity and respect after death and to the practice of their religion and expression of their identity. NAGPRA treats human remains not as biological specimens but as cultural objects with meaning: these remains carry the history of the dehumanizing treatment of bodies, and, moreover, there is now a recognition from the wider society that funerary customs express continuing relationships between the dead and the living.


12:28 mi.

Video Transcript

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