Thomae – Museums and Tribes

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In November of 1990, a Congressional law was passed and it’s familiarly called NAGPRA, but it stands for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. And basically the law states that under certain circumstances tribes can ask for certain items back. There are particular categories of material. Though it also requires that museums that receive federal funding, either directly or indirectly, report holdings to the tribes, the material in their possession. So, the categories include: human remains, associated funerary objects, unassociated funerary objects, objects of cultural patrimony, and sacred objects.

This was a very active region—and it still is—for Native Peoples, either moving through Wisconsin or settling here. Some were here very temporarily, as you know, so there’s evidence of that historically as well. So we have a very rich area and a Native heritage in our state. And there are eleven groups here, within our state. So, eleven federally recognized groups. So our collections, because we are in Wisconsin, the largest collection of material we have are from Wisconsin, or Great Lakes in particular. Our collections here at the Milwaukee Public Museum include over 23,000 American Indian ethnographic items and for our archaeological material from just Wisconsin alone, we have over 30,000 archaeological items.

So, under the particular categories of NAGPRA several of those items could potentially be requested for repatriation. So we’ve had over 50 tribal groups visit, some from the Midwest, many of them from the Midwest, and over different periods of time, for example, because tribal governance changes and so different people want to come and visit who are now as part of that tribal governance. So, under the NAGPRA categories, material—human remains for the most part—are human bones, and associated and unassociated funerary objects are something actually that the law had to specify. Associated funerary objects means that the museum both has the human remains as well as the cultural material in their possession. And unassociated funerary objects means that it is recorded that the material was found with human remains, but the museum does not have them in their possession. They could have been left there when people found them or they were excavated, or for whatever reason they were just separated.

So, sacred material and cultural patrimony are probably the most difficult to define. It isn’t up to the museum to make those definitions as well. It is up to the tribes to say what is sacred and what is cultural patrimony. So sacred items are items that are important to the tribe for continuing religious practices. Cultural patrimony are items which define the tribe as a whole and that they can’t be individually owned. So, items of cultural patrimony include wampum, which are initially associated with the tribes of the East, especially the Iroquois, and they were oftentimes made into belts. They’re from a shell, and they’re purple and white tubular beads. So, that’s one example that the law actually uses as an item of cultural patrimony.

It sometimes depends on the actual object. So, for example, a certain person representing the tribe, within the tribe, can define a certain object as being cultural patrimony. So it isn’t really a category of material. It’s very personal and very specific to that group at that particular time. What’s interesting about these categories, too, of sacred and cultural patrimony, is that at one point, maybe a couple hundred years ago, they might have been deemed sacred but are no longer sacred in today’s cultural practices. The same thing with cultural patrimony—things that before maybe could have been items of cultural patrimony are no longer, and vice-versa. So it’s a very fluid sort of interpretation, and that’s why it’s wonderful that the museums don’t have that responsibility of defining those.

I think it’s important for the general public to understand that even though it was passed in 1990 and there were deadlines in 1993 and 1995 for museums to report their holdings to the national government as well as the tribes, that it’s an ongoing and living law. That tribes at any time can come to the museum for tribal visits to view material to ask for repatriation. We’ve had several cases just recently for requests for repatriation, one of them from a group in Michigan and another group in Oregon. So our collections are very eclectic and cover many groups and many areas. And that it does impact how museums have cared for their collections, how they display the material, because as part of NAGPRA there is a collaborative nature. So, for example, there are items that might not fall under those particular categories. A great example are Iroquois false face masks, which the Iroquois groups did not request for repatriation, but asked if they could be removed from exhibit for them to rest. So, they shouldn’t be on display or working all the time. They should have a time to rest. So we certainly abided by that request.

Repatriating is a very emotional issue for many groups and many individuals, and we want to respect that. And so, some requests [are] a more private nature, even though the material is advertised, or I should say printed, on the National Park Service website as, “our museum has repatriated to this particular group these specific items,” they don’t always want the general public to know about them. So we do respect that and don’t put it in our newsletter, for example, if they don’t wish it. But some groups don’t really have that feeling. They even advertise the fact that they have repatriated from some. We’ve had, for example, a wonderful working relationship with the Stockbridge-Munsee in Wisconsin for many years. And we repatriated items to them under a few different categories, including wampum, and a pipe.

And in the example for the Stockbridge, which is helpful, because a lot of it depends on the evidence provided for the tribe. They have to provide the case for repatriation. It’s not us. We provide as much documentation on the artifacts or the material as we can to help them make a good decision or you know, provide proof for their request. So in this case we had very specific information of who the material came from, who, in a couple cases, owned it, when it came into the museum. So the material came directly from a Stockbridge person. So we did have a tribal elder come and look at the pipe who examined it for over an hour because there were a lot of designs and patterns that he recognized. The nature of the pipe was very specific. For example, tribes can’t say that all pipes are sacred. They can’t just write a letter and ask for all pipes. They have to be more specific about the nature of that particular type of pipe or the use of the pipe because pipes were used, yes, in a sacred nature, but they were also used every day, to smoke tobacco, just like we would do that. But there were certain pipes that were only used maybe for ceremonial purposes. So they have to be very specific in their request and provide evidence of that, and they were able to do that with this particular pipe.

I think that NAGPRA was a really wonderful process for museums. There were a lot of them that grumbled initially because we had some very firm deadlines from the government. And again, it was a lot of preparatory work. But it forced museums really to inventory their collections, to look at them, to document them more fully, to identify the condition of every single Native object in their collection. And what’s also wonderful is just the relationships that were formed by NAGPRA. What also helps is [that] the tribes came to the museum to look at it and provided even more information about our collections and they were able to say, “oh, this is what this is called,” or “this is how it’s used,” and being able to share this with us.

I had actually a wonderful visit from the Ioway group this past summer. And there were 20 of them that came, and there were elders and younger people that came. And they wanted to visit the collection. We have the most extensive material from the Ioway group, which is primarily located in Iowa, but also in Nebraska as well. And they wanted to use it not for repatriation, but to look at the material as a teaching mechanism for the next generation. So they were teaching them Native words in association with the objects. They were showing how to handle material. They were showing them because their collection in many ways, and in many groups, has been devastated by not just museums which were in a collecting frenzy in the last quarter of the 19th century, the first part of the 20th century, but also by collectors, personal collectors, which is where museums got a lot of their material as well. But it was really wonderful to see this kind of education going on, and at the end of the visit they said, “we don’t want that material back, we see that how well you care for it here.”

And they have also, some groups, have a fear that if it came back to the tribe and there were changes in tribal governance, that the material might not be as well used or protected. So they felt, in some cases, tribes say, “this is a much better safehouse, and we can visit it at any time.” There are also potential loans. In Wisconsin, for example, the Forest County Potawatomi, as well as the Oneida Nation, have long-term loans from our collection on exhibit in their museums.

My name is Dawn Scher Thomae and I am the Anthropology Collections manager and associate curator of the Milwaukee Public Museum.

Production credits:

Executive Producer, Loretta Fowler
Assistant Producer, Brian Mornar

Production, Mike Media Group
Camera, Michael DiGioia
Video Editor, Kahrin Deines

Photo credits:

Map of Wisconsin tribes – courtesy of National Department of the Interior,

Tonawanda Seneca Nation sign – photo courtesy of Wikipedia Creative Commons

Forest County Potawatomi Museum – photo courtesy of the Forest County Potawatomi

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