History Class Meets Wampanoag Leader

Contributed by Lindsay Randall5db7be91c83fdc0a56e7800a9944a838

Image of Edith Andrews taken from patch.com http://patch.com/rhode-island/bristol-warren/massasoit-memorial-takes-step-forward 

On November 6, students in Marcelle Doheny’s Race and Identity in Indian Country course met with Edith Andrews of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).

That morning, I left my house early to pick up Edith at her home in North Dartmouth. The two-hour drive back to Andover was full of laughter as Edith has a wicked sense of humor. After we arrived, the entire museum staff, along with some of our colleagues from the OWHL, joined Edith and me for lunch at Paresky Commons, where she regaled us with stories about her family, including the fact that her children had attended private school and that her grandchildren were studying at Dartmouth and the University of Southern New Hampshire. We also laughed over her story about her husband’s attempt to clear out clutter during a move, inadvertently leaving behind a first edition of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. We were all instructed to keep an eye out for the gray, clothbound volume in used-book stores on Cape Cod.

Edith’s conversation with students gave them a firsthand look at NAGPRA—the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act—from the American Indian perspective. The passage of NAGPRA in 1990 signaled a shift in the disciplines of archaeology and museology. Not only did the Act create a process for tribes to claim the return of human remains, funerary objects, sacred items, and objects of cultural patrimony, but also it caused museum personnel and archaeologists to start changing how they think about and interact with descendant communities. Collaborative projects and indigenous archaeology are now fairly common. Despite that, there are significant challenges to compliance with NAGPRA, including difficulties in affiliating museum collections with contemporary tribes, lack of land for reburial of human remains, divergent interpretations of the law, and the sheer volume of human remains and funerary objects in museum collections. For example, a 2010 Government Accountability Office audit concluded that many federal agencies had not complied with the Act.

Students listened to Edith talk about her experience as a former Massachusetts Commissioner on Indian Affairs in the 1980s—the days just before the passage of NAGPRA, when every local law enforcement agency was storing human remains that could be repatriated and reburied under state law—as well as the use of the term “Native American” instead of “American Indian.” We all were particularly struck when Edith discussed the reluctance of museums to return funerary objects and items of cultural patrimony, even though these are clearly covered by the Act. She talked about the significant loss of Wampanoag material culture that began in the 17th century when Puritan colonists raided native graves for “pretties” (essentially grave goods and burial offerings) and how this continued throughout King Philip’s War, when trophies were taken by colonists and sent back to England. Most notable was a wampum belt, composed of white and purple shell beads, that is thought to be in the British Museum. Edith asked why the Wampanoag couldn’t expect the return of some of these items for display in their tribal museum.

Students in Race and Identity in Indian Country spent the fall term confronting the fraught history of American Indians. Major themes covered were scientific racism, government policy, and the role of museums in the near genocide of Native people. Edith’s visit was a reminder that American Indians are still here—as individuals and vibrant communities—and that repatriation is more than a fight over property, but one that cuts to the core of personal and community identity, health, and well-being.

After the students departed for sports and other commitments, Edith and I began our return trip to North Dartmouth. When I was pulling into her driveway she remarked that although she was glad to be home because it was home, she was sad that the day was done as she had very much enjoyed our wonderful students.

For more information on the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah): http://www.wampanoagtribe.net/Pages/index

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