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.

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