Repatriation and the View from the Top

Contributed by Ryan J. Wheeler

At the recent 8th annual Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA) Repatriation Conference I participated in the final panel. This session, called “The View from the Top,” invited directors from a number of museums, universities, and agencies to talk about what they were doing to overcome obstacles and improve their repatriation process under the Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The other institutions represented were Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, the Alabama Department of Archives & History, UC Berkeley, Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, and the Illinois State Museum. Many of these are big university programs and still hold thousands of ancestors and funerary belongings. Since we spoke alphabetically, I went last and had a little opportunity to reflect on what others had said.

Many of the institutions had similar challenges and a variety of solutions. Several of the presenters mentioned that the law privileges museum decision-making, creating an imbalance. To counter this greater import was now given to Indigenous information, like oral history or expert opinion. Indigenous activism, often on campus, had focused attention on the need for increased engagement and compliance with NAGPRA. In California, state legislation had served this role. Most of the leaders spoke about listening and learning from Indigenous members of their campus communities and from those Tribal representatives leading repatriation efforts. One of the big topics that garnered audience interest was moratoriums on both research and acceptance of collections that might include ancestors or other cultural items subject to NAGPRA. I shared that we had not enacted moratoriums, but rather had modified our collections policies to allow for research only after consultation with culturally and geographically affiliated Tribes. And, that this applied to all of our collections, noting that it was difficult if not impossible to distinguish between NAGPRA and Not-NAGPRA collections outside of consultation with Tribes.

The Peabody also has not enacted a moratorium on accepting collections, largely because we recognize that this might be the only pathway to repatriation for some ancestors and cultural items. It was also our practice when I worked in Florida—we had laws and rules in place that allowed our state agency to accept ancestral remains for the purpose of repatriation. Steve Murray, director of the Alabama Department of Archives & History, shared in the session that they had done something similar recently. Several audience members pointed out concerns about such transfers, noting a lack of trust, and also suggested that donors be directed to Tribes. Being in touch with Tribes when these situations arise is critical, but direct transfers might not always be possible. In fact, the Peabody has had a long history of accepting collections with ancestral remains and cultural items for the purpose of repatriation. In some cases, these transfers have reunited split or shared collections, while others have supported smaller museums or historical societies that lack repatriation expertise, and others have seen ancestors and cultural items move out of private hands where they could be sold or discarded.

In reflecting on this discussion since the conference, I’ve thought a couple of things. Mainly, that what is great about NAGPRA is also what is awful. The law and rule encourage creative solutions, but in order to do that there exist small gaps or interstices where institutions can lean one way or the other. Tribal perspectives and expertise can be given greater weight in determining affiliation, or the law can be interpreted very strictly, creating situations that impede repatriation. Also, there is no “one size fits all;” what works for the Peabody is not going to work elsewhere. I think too that the current focus on moratoriums is unfortunate, though I certainly understand that response. There has been too long a time when culturally unaffiliated ancestral remains and cultural items could be subjected to destructive testing or other forms of research without Tribal consent. I worry, however, that moratoriums are not really policies and do not encourage collaboration between institutions and potentially foreclose transfers that could help speed repatriation. Maybe this comes from my time in public service in Florida, but I believe museums have a responsibility not to just focus on their own NAGPRA compliance, but to support each other for the collective good.

Drawing Together: Comics and the Return of Museum Collections to White Earth Nation

Contributed by Marla Taylor

If you don’t know about the NAGPRA Comics yet, you really should take the time to check them out.

NAGPRA Comics is a community- based, collaboratively produced comic series that tells true stories about repatriation from tribal perspectives. They work with Native American communities to share their experiences with the law, from their point of view. This is an  applied/educational comic series, so it also explains what the law is and how it works. [excerpt from]

These comics are amazing teaching tools to introduce students, and members of the public, to the issues surrounding NAGPRA and repatriation. The comics focus on the perspectives of the tribal communities, highlighting their thoughts and experiences. I really love them and regularly recommend them to anyone interested in learning about NAGPRA – so go check it out!

The NAGPRA Comics team is working on several more issues and the Peabody Institute is proud to be a contributor to one upcoming issue.

In 2017, the Peabody Institute repatriated a birch bark scroll and other items of cultural patrimony back to the White Earth Nation of Minnesota. Those items left the reservation in 1909 with Warren K. Moorehead. Moorehead went to White Earth in his capacity as a member of the Board of Indian Commissioners, charged with investigating non-Natives’ rampant land and resource theft and the consequences of disposition, disease, and hunger. Investigations by the Minnesota attorney general and Congress, using the testimony that Moorehead and his team collected, led to the restoration of some lands and resources.

The story in the upcoming comic is complex and rich. We are honored to be a small part of this meaningful project.

Jen Shannon, Program Manager and Curator at the National Museum of the American Indian and member of the NAGPRA Comics team, wrote a fantastic blog for the Ohio History Connection exploring the story and how it will be told in the comic. Her blog includes a glimpse of some draft pages. Take a look for yourself!

You can learn more about our work with White Earth Nation here and here.

Sample draft page of NAGPRA Comics. Courtesy of artist John Swogger.

Listen If You Dare! The Perfect Podcast List for the Spooky Season

Contributed by Emma Lavoie

It’s almost Halloween, so get in the spirit by checking out our list of the best spooky podcasts you definitely don’t want to listen to alone in the dark. From haunted places to haunting history, these podcasts will have you on the edge of your seat or hiding under the covers. Happy haunts and happy listening this Halloween!

#1 Spooked

Another season of Spooked has RISEN… cross over (if you dare) into the world of the unexplained, listening to true-life supernatural stories, told first-hand by people who can barely believe it happened themselves. This podcast challenges skeptics of the supernatural, daring listeners to confront the unknown. Be afraid.

#2 Dark House

For true crime fans who also love a good ghost story, Dark House features America’s most notorious homes. From infamous crime scenes to abandoned mansions, hosts and House Beautiful editors Hadley Mendelsohn and Alyssa Fiorentino unpack the twisted history of a different house in each episode. They research who lived (and died) there and share the creepy stories that suggest their spirits never left.

#3 The No Sleep Podcast

Too afraid to listen to true-crime podcasts because they’re all about things that actually happened? Give this podcast a try. Each episode will have you feeling like you are telling spooky stories around a virtual campfire. Run, don’t walk!

#4 Haunted Road

Amy Bruni, star of the hit TV shows Kindred Spirits and Ghost Hunters, takes listeners on a chilling guided tour through some of the most haunted locations in America with the help of expert paranormal investigators who have actually been there. Do you have chills yet?

#5 Lore

This podcast is about dark historical events that blur the lines between history and lore. Lore explores the mysterious creatures, tragic events, and unusual places that fill the pages of our history… sometimes the truth is more frightening than fiction.

#6 American Shadows

Join host Lauren Vogelbaum as she spans two centuries of omitted lore from our country’s history books. This show focuses on the darker stories from American history: the people, places, and things that are hidden and forgotten in the shadows. From better-known tales like the conspiracy to steal Lincoln’s body, to less-known stories, like the rainmaker who flooded San Diego. American Shadows explores the hidden tales relegated to the dusty corners of US history, one journey at a time.

#7 Unobscured

History is full of stories we think we know. They are old and dark, but time has robbed us of perspective and clarity. They’ve become obscured and misunderstood. Which is why this series exists: to dig deep and shed light on some of history’s darkest moments. To help us better understand where we’ve come from. To make it Unobscured. Each season pairs narrative storytelling from Aaron Mahnke, creator of the hit podcast Lore, with prominent historian interviews. Check out Season 1 about the Salem Witch Trials. You may even find an interview with a familiar friend of the Peabody, Emerson Baker, Phillips Academy alum, history professor at Salem State University, and author of A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience.

#8 Midnight Library

Not just another podcast show, but a place you can go. Climb the stairs of this strange, Victorian mansion and curl up by the grand fireplace to hear tales of times long ago. Be transported through time to learn about ancient customs and mysterious happenings all from the comfort of the Midnight Library. Be sure to stay in the cordoned off areas, and you’ll be fine…

Looking for a spooky podcast for kids? Check out the podcast – Grimm, Grimmer, Grimmest

Designed for kids – Grimm, Grimmer, Grimmest is a wildly enchanting fairy tale podcast, featuring classic fairy tales that bring to life a world full of curious creatures and mischievous foes. Created in partnership with bestselling children’s book author, Adam Gidwitz, each episode retells a tale to a group of inquisitive kids, who anticipate plot twists, crack jokes, and share their own perspectives on these very Grimm tales. Another unique feature to this children’s podcast is each episode is rated as “Grimm,” “Grimmer,” or “Grimmest.”

For more haunted listening, check out these honorable mentions.