Low – Repatriation

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We’ve been working with tribal employees, tribal council, to get the inventories that are required by NAGPRA for museums to provide to us, and to go through those, and to try to get ancestors returned to us when possible. Some of those have been formal repatriations. We’re working with the Field Museum of Natural History right now for a formal repatriation. Many of the repatriations actually though have been informal where people will just contact us and say, you know, “We dug up one of your ancestors when we were building a house and we would like to return that ancestor. And we don’t want to go through a lot of red tape about it.” So we have a place in Niles where we bury those ancestors. One of the exciting things that came out of NAGPRA is that the various Potawatomi Nations spread out throughout the United States and Canada came together around this issue most solidly and early on reached an agreement that if it’s determined to be a Potawatomi person, we don’t care which tribe buries it. We’re not going to fight among ourselves over whose specific ancestor it was because prior to European contact we were all one people anyway. The most important thing is to get that ancestor back into the ground so that their spirit can continue on their journey, where they need to go.

We have an affiliation of all the tribes, federally recognized tribes, and not recognized tribes, in Michigan, that has a similar attitude that we’re not going to fight over ancestral remains, that if anybody can get them, they won’t divide and conquer us by saying, “Oh well, you know, the Ojibwa or the Odawa are fighting with the Potawatomi about who should get these remains.”  And every year we have a Gathering of Nations, and one of the most important meetings is the NAGPRA Committee meetings, where the NAGPRA officers gather together to collaborate on future repatriation requests.  We’ve repatriated objects, we had objects.  They’re called funerary objects, objects that were buried with the dead that specifically out of the Fort St. Joseph Museum in Niles were early on repatriated to the Pokagon Potawatomi. We are working with other communities about, or with other museums, other institutions, about repatriating our material objects, our objects of cultural patrimony and funeral objects.

It’s tougher, frankly, with material objects than it is with ancestral remains. People seem to understand that we probably shouldn’t have these bones in the institution. Sometimes they understand that anyway. But it’s a little tougher sell to convince them that, you know, you shouldn’t have that sacred pipe, you shouldn’t have that, that bag there, that’s a medicine bundle there, and that shouldn’t be displayed and that shouldn’t be retained. That should be returned and buried. That’s been a tougher sell. Some of those items don’t need to be just buried. For instance, I was at the Grand Teton National Park and strangely enough found that there was an Evanston, Illinois collector in the nineteenth century who had collected over 200 items of cultural patrimony from Potawatomi people in the Great Lakes and then happened to retire out in Wyoming and donated his collection to the Grand Teton National Park. We took elders there, from Forest County and from Pokagon Band, and we went there and these elders had not seen these sorts of items since their childhood and had no idea these sorts of things still existed. And to think that they’re out in Wyoming where they have no context, they have little meaning, they’re mostly kept in storage, where if they were returned here, back to the people, returned home, they’d have a lot of meaning. It’s essentially like taking the Liberty Bell, in my mind, and having it stored in Rio de Janeiro. It doesn’t make sense. It ought to go home. Our things ought to come home, too. But that’s a tough sell. That’s a process of education and advocacy to get that accomplished.

It’s the obligation of the tribe to prove cultural affiliation. Well, that’s very difficult since we did not have written records, or, we have writing, but we don’t have a lot of written records prior to European contact. And particularly not about our ancestors, where we buried them. That sort of thing. These people are very likely Potawatomi, Ojibwa, and Odawa people, our ancestors. They certainly are doing no good in cardboard boxes in a warehouse next to the football stadium. Most of them have never been studied since they were dug up. And we have a cosmology and a worldview and a belief system that says that these spirits are interrupted and cannot continue their journey that they’re supposed to continue until they’re returned to Mother Earth, Nokmeskignan. And, so we’re fighting that fight.

We’re hopeful that the NAGPRA Review Committee is meeting, has been meeting, and is continuing to meet and has said that they’re going to promulgate new rules that will help close that loophole. We want our ancestors back. A medicine bundle might not be a funeral object, but it’s an object that would have been a very important piece of material culture for an individual and/or a clan and/or a community or a village. Those are items that are, you know, they’re sacred, they’re powerful. And in the wrong hands they can do a lot of harm. And they, that’s one example of items that should be repatriated. Items that would show, for instance, thunderbirds and water panthers, items of sacred significance, should be repatriated, too. Also items of, frankly, cultural patrimony, skills that have been lost or that are in decline, should be returned to us so that our children and our elders and everyone in between, we can relearn those techniques. We are happy that museums preserved them for us during dire economic times for us. But now that we’re on a little more stable footing, thanks to economic development, we’re ready and willing and able and eager to have these items returned to us.

My name is John Low and I’m an enrolled member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indian Nation. I was born in Niles, Michigan, near the tribal headquarters in Dowagiac. And I grew up in that community, I [was] raised by my grandmother and my mother, who were Potawatomi. I am a lawyer–graduated from University of Michigan Law School in 1981. I returned home at the request of my elders and also because of my own sense of responsibility and desire to return home and work in a small town practice and also work as a tribal attorney on behalf of the community and did so. And worked on the process along with many, many, many others who did more work than me on the federal recognition process, which was finally successful in 1994. Since 1994, I’m a co-author of our tribal constitution. Since 1994, I’ve served on tribal council, I’ve served on several committees for the tribe, including the Traditions and Repatriation Committee and the Economic Development Committee as a co-author of the tribal constitution. I also subsequently took a leave of absence from practicing law and returned to school. First to get a second B.A. in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota and then a Master’s Degree from the University of Chicago in the Social Sciences and now am completing a PhD in Cultural Studies at the University of Michigan in American culture. Currently, I’m employed as a visiting professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I live in Chicago and visit often with my relatives and my friends and with my community in Michigan. While I was at the University of Michigan, I also earned a graduate certificate in Museum Studies, which worked well with my subjects that I’m studying for my dissertation, but it also led to employment. I became the Executive Director at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, which I served as that director for about almost two years, the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian being located in Evanston, Illinois, and had the opportunity to work with a lot of Native and non-Native people in both curatorial and exhibition and preservation issues.

Production credits:

Executive Producer, Loretta Fowler
Assistant Producer, Brian Mornar
Production by Mike Media Group

Photo credits:

Field Museum – photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Man at Gathering of Nations – photo courtesy of South Bend Tribune

Fort St. Joseph Museum – photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Grand Teton National Park sign – photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons/Daniel Mayer

Basketmakers – photo courtesy of the Newberry Library (Simon Pokagon, Queen of the Woods, Ayer 439 P7 1899)

Julie Wesaw holding basket – photo by Alan Kamuda, courtesy of The MSU Museum, Michigan State University

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