Reflections on Repatriation

Contributed by Marla Taylor

Most of my time lately has been spent on repatriation work.  This work isn’t something that I can share lots of details about, but it is probably both the most challenging and rewarding part of my job. 

The Peabody has always had a commitment to working with tribes and Indigenous peoples to ensure that ancestors, funerary belongings, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony are repatriated in a respectful and timely fashion.  I am fortunate to inherit that past work and a strong institutional reputation for fairness and responsibility.  It is a high standard that I constantly strive to uphold.

In late October, I was able to take part in the 6th Annual Repatriation Conference sponsored by the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA).  This conference was a focused on the 30th anniversary of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).  It was fabulous to learn about the work of other institutions and tribes, share strategies to overcome challenges, hear about success stories, and be inspired by so many other dedicated professionals. 

I was the most impacted by a wonderful presentation on decolonization by the Director of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, ME and the staff of the Museum of Us in San Diego, CA.  The incredible work they have done, and continue to do, to address the inherently colonial nature of a museum interpreting the material culture of minority and Indigenous communities is inspiring.  Listening to their presentation and thinking about the work we do at the Peabody, I was pleased to identify so much overlap.  The thought we have put into the decolonizing process manifests itself in our collections policies, NAGPRA policy, how we approach education, and approach research inquiries.

I take this part of my job very seriously.  My work can’t erase past mistreatment of these ancestors and belongings, or redress colonial wrongs, but I can make progress.  The changes that I am part of will hopefully become the foundation of a stronger reputation for caring, meticulousness, and a progressive attitude toward repatriation.  Decolonization work is anti-racism work.

In mid-November, a colleague and I will be presenting to the NAGPRA Community a Practice (a group of scholars and NAGPRA practitioners from museum and tribes) on the topic of decolonizing collections care.  I am excited to share my ideas with this group and get feedback.

The process of decolonization will probably never end and there will always be more to learn.  I look forward to the challenge!

This artwork was created especially for the 6th Annual Repatriation Conference by George Curtis Levi, who is a member of the Southern Cheyenne Tribe of Oklahoma and is also Southern Arapaho. This ledger art painting depicts how repatriation builds community and strengthens culture. It was painted on an antique mining document from Montana that dates from the 1890s.

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