[NOTE: This paper was published in the special issue “Indigenous Collections: Belongings, Decolonization, Contextualization” of Collections: A Journal for Museum and Archives Professionals, 2022, Vol. 18(1):8-17. We’ve reproduced the pre-press version here with pagination for those who do not have access to SAGE publications. Please cite as Wheeler, Ryan, Jaime Arsenault, and Marla Taylor. “Beyond NAGPRA/Not NAGPRA.” Collections 18, no. 1 (March 2022): 8–17.


Institutions have been slow to respond to calls from Indigenous nations, organizations, and scholars to require free, prior, and informed consent before authorizing use of their cultural heritage materials in publications, exhibition, and research. In the United States, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 fundamentally changed the relationship between museums, archaeologists, and Indigenous nations, requiring institutions to inventory their collections and consult with descendant communities on repatriation of specific Indigenous collections. In response, institutions and their personnel have come to view Indigenous collections as those subject to NAGPRA and those that are not—NAGPRA/Not NAGPRA. Many Indigenous nations, however, do not accept this demarcation, resulting in continued frustration and trauma for those descendant communities. This case study follows the evolving relationship between the White Earth Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology. Beginning with repatriation, the relationship has expanded to consider how the museum and Indigenous nation can collaborate on the care and curation of cultural heritage materials that remain at the Peabody Institute. Most recently, White Earth and the Peabody have executed an MOU that governs how the museum will handle new acquisitions, found-in-collections materials, and donor offers. The relationship with the White Earth also has influenced how the Peabody Institute approaches its holdings of Indigenous cultural heritage materials more broadly, blurring the line between NAGPRA and Not NAGPRA collections. The Peabody Institute is working to revise its collections policy to require free, prior, and informed consent prior to use of Indigenous cultural heritage materials in publications, exhibitions, and research.



This case study is authored by Ryan Wheeler and Marla Taylor, who acknowledge that they are settlers of European descent in the unceded territories of many Indigenous nations in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, USA, including the Wabanaki Confederacy and the Wampanoag nations, and Jaime Arsenault, the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (THPO) for the White Earth Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe (White Earth). Wheeler and Taylor are employees of the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology (the Peabody), an archaeology museum that is part of Phillips Academy, a college preparatory school located in Andover, Massachusetts USA. Founded in 1901, the Peabody has a lot in common with other twentieth century museums in the United States, including amassing Indigenous collections from diverse areas with little or no consent from descendant communities. The Peabody currently holds nearly 600,000 objects of Indigenous material culture, primarily from the Arctic and Canada; the northeastern, southeastern, and southwestern United States, and Mexico and Peru, as well as photographs and archival materials.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed as federal law in 1990 and required that museums and federal agencies inventory their holdings for ancestral remains and funerary belongings, provide these inventories to descendant Indigenous communities, and consult with those communities on cultural affiliation and repatriation. NAGPRA has elements of property law and civil rights legislation, providing an opportunity for Indigenous nations to reclaim stolen ancestors and funerary belongings. NAGPRA fundamentally changed the relationship between Indigenous nations, archaeologists, and museums, creating an environment where representatives of each group were in regular contact with one another. Often this contact led to other programs and collaborations beyond NAGPRA. For examples, Nash (2021; also see Moore 2010) has recently revisited the concept of “propatriation,” collaborative undertakings that go beyond the legal requirements of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) or moral imperatives to return Indigenous cultural heritage to groups outside the United States. NAGPRA compliance, however, has been slowed by a variety of factors, including institutional reliance on archaeological and biological lines of evidence, even in the face of compelling oral history evidence or expert opinion supplied by Indigenous nations. At the time of this writing, over 100,000 ancestors remain in museum collections with little or no path to repatriation (Nash and Colwell 2020).


Between 2013 and 2015, the Peabody developed a strategic plan that built on an earlier commitment to NAGPRA, prioritizing decolonial principles in all aspects of museum operations (Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology 2015). With decolonization as a guiding principle, the plan acknowledged the harm caused by archaeological excavations and sought to shift the balance of power, giving Indigenous nations a greater voice in how their material culture is handled and interpreted. We argue that museums and institutions holding Indigenous cultural heritage must go beyond collaborative programming to instill change at the policy and procedure level. Work on NAGPRA compliance provides an opportunity to develop and implement those policy changes.

The Peabody Institute and the White Earth Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe have collaborated to blur what we have been calling the NAGPRA/Not NAGPRA dichotomy. Though we have encountered other museums in the United States where staff are interested in instituting such changes, informal conversations have found few examples where official policies governing how Indigenous collections are accessed for exhibit, research, photography, or other purposes specifically require the free, prior, and informed consent of descendant communities. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adopted by the General Assembly on 13 September 2007. Part 2 of Article 11 specifically states:

States shall provide redress through effective mechanisms, which may include restitution, developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples, with respect to their cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs (UN General Assembly 2007).

Article 12 deals with the rights of Indigenous people to seek repatriation of ancestors and ceremonial objects. Revision of the Peabody’s collection policy specifically aligns with Articles 11 and 12 of UNDRIP, both in the way that NAGPRA is implemented, but also in going beyond NAGPRA compliance to insure the rights of Indigenous people regarding their tangible and intangible cultural heritage.


Co-authors Wheeler and Taylor, in their respective roles as director and curator of col- lections at the Peabody Institute, began using the phrase NAGPRA/Not NAGPRA sometime in the last few years to describe their own approach to Indigenous heritage collections. This articulation of our own institution’s approach to repatriation occurred in 2017 to 2018 when we first began to draft a broad repatriation policy, based on our existing practice. Consultation with Indigenous nations, especially White Earth, as well as the Osage Nation of Oklahoma, the Wabanaki Repatriation Confederacy of


Figure 1. Tara Mason, beadwork artist and member, White Earth Band, examines Anishnaabe clothing at the Peabody Institute as co-authors Marla Taylor and Ryan Wheeler look on during a consultation visit, January 2017.

Maine, Pueblos in the American Southwest, as well as engagement with other repatriation practitioners in the NAGPRA Community of Practice began to erode our commitment to this approach (Figure 1). Taylor concisely stated that she believed that many institutions, in response to the passage of NAGPRA, began to distinguish those collections that they felt were subject to NAGPRA from those that were not. By firmly drawing boundaries between NAGPRA and Not NAGPRA collections, institutions preserve pre-NAGPRA decision-making structures regarding how they can access and use Indigenous cultural heritage. This discernment, whether intentional or not, reflects the imbalance inherent in a law that sought to balance the interests of museums with the rights of Indigenous nations to reclaim their stolen ancestors and make decisions regarding other tangible and intangible cultural heritage, including images, archives, and songs. If there is any doubt about this, responses from museums and archaeologists to the Department of Interior’s proposed changes to the NAGPRA rules support our assertion (see Seidemann 2008).

Blurring the Lines

While uncommon, there are some excellent examples where organizations and institutions have blurred the lines between NAGPRA and Not NAGPRA collections. The First Archivists Circle (2007) developed and shared The Protocols for Native American


Archival Materials. Like NAGPRA, consultation with descendant communities is at the core of The Protocols. The Protocols stress that consultation and shared decision making about archival collections are in line with accepted ethical archive practices. Between 2016 and 2018, the Peabody Institute incorporated many of the principles and practices advocated for in The Protocols. For example, we agreed that digitizing paper and photographic records was inappropriate without consultation and explicit approval from Indigenous nations, especially as many of the museum records dealt with excavations of ancestral remains. It was not until more recently that we formally incorporated these practices into our collections policies and procedures. It is unclear, however, how many institutions have formally implemented the recommendations within The Protocols, though there are good examples and case studies at the website of the Society of American Archivists (2021a, 2021b).

The University of Maine (2018, Orono) executed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Penobscot Nation. The MOU formalizes principles and practices regarding how the university manages and shares Penobscot cultural heritage at the Hudson Museum, the Fogler Library, the University of Maine Press, and the Anthropology Department. University of Maine history faculty member Darren Ranco and Jane Anderson of New York University developed the University of Maine MOU. Anderson’s work on attribution, Indigenous archives, intellectual property, and Traditional Knowledge labels is critically important and informs the case study presented here (Anderson 2018; Christen and Anderson 2019).

Case Study

White Earth is one of seven Anishinaabe reservations in Minnesota, created in 1867 by a treaty between the United States and the Mississippi Band of Chippewa Indians. Unlike many lands set aside for Indigenous nations in the United States, the White Earth Reservation had abundant natural resources, including timber. Meyer (1994), a historian of mixed Irish, German and Eastern Cherokee heritage, published The White Earth Tragedy, telling the story of how unscrupulous companies and individuals defrauded the Anishinaabe people of their property, land, and natural resources (Bloch et al. 2008). The dispossession of the White Earth Anishinaabe also set in motion the loss of significant material culture, as anthropologists and collectors forced Indigenous nation members to sell or gift items they possessed.

Robert S. Peabody and Warren K. Moorehead founded the Peabody Institute in 1901, originally called the Phillips Academy Department of Archaeology, at Robert’s high school alma mater. The museum became involved in the major undertakings of twentieth century archaeology, including sponsorship of Alfred V. Kidder’s 1915– 1929 excavations of Pecos Pueblo, investigations across the Northeast and Southeast, with personnel holding leadership roles in major anthropological and archaeological


organizations. Curator Warren K. Moorehead was also involved with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (Fritz 1985). Through his association with the BIA, he investigated the fraud being committed against the Anishinaabe people at White Earth. While at White Earth Moorehead obtained a number of cultural heritage materials, ranging from photographs to sacred items to elements of Anishinaabe clothing (Bacon 2009; Moorehead 1914).

Personnel at the Peabody Institute embraced repatriation after the passage of NAGPRA in 1990, perhaps largely due to the commitment and vision of Leah Rosenmeier, who served in a variety of roles at the museum from 1993 to 2002 (Bradley 2018). Starting in 2013, the leadership of the Peabody Institute recognized the importance of repatriation work conducted under NAGPRA and the need for broader theoretical underpinnings that could inform all collections and educational endeavors (see Lonetree 2012). As part of their strategic planning process, Wheeler invited Arsenault to present to the institute’s advisory committee, following an earlier meeting in 2011. Coincidentally, Arsenault was assisting in the development of the White Earth’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) repatriation program, and was actively searching for Indigenous cultural heritage that had originated at White Earth.

Warren K. Moorehead’s activities at White Earth in 1909 had led to the accession of a number of items, including glass plate photographs of his investigation, Anishanaabe clothing and bandolier bags, as well as pipes, a war flag, and birch bark scroll meeting the definition of cultural patrimony and sacred objects under the NAGPRA law and rules. Arsenault and other White Earth representatives aided in the repatriation of some of these Indigenous collections, and provided informal guidance on the care of the remaining materials (National Park Service 2016, 2017). For example, White Earth representatives asked that the museum not share the photographic images made by Moorehead without permission from the THPO.

Arsenault, serving as the White Earth’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, pro- posed in 2020 that the Peabody Institute enter into a more formal agreement regarding future acquisitions of Indigenous cultural heritage originating from the Indigenous nation. The agreement would cover offers of donations or sale made to the museum, or purchases of contemporary artwork from Indigenous nation members. Arsenault collaborated with Jane Anderson of NYU and provided a draft agreement document, and Wheeler, Taylor, and the Phillips Academy legal counsel made revisions and updates. A copy of the final document—ultimately called Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between White Earth Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe Historic Preservation Office and the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology—is available from the authors or the Peabody Institute. Major elements include:

  • The MOU addresses all tangible and intangible materials (photographs, field- recordings, maps, archaeological collections, films, field-notes, legal papers,


artwork, biographical material, and like materials) that relate or may relate to White Earth. There are provisions for the tribe to aid the institution in making cultural identifications if the materials cannot be sourced to White Earth specifically.

  • The MOU specifies that it is part of Peabody Institute efforts to adhere to CARE Principles for Indigenous Data Governance (Global Indigenous Data Alliance 2019). Among other things, the CARE Principles recognize that current efforts to digitize and widely share scientific data often fail to involve descendant com- munities in these decisions.
  • There is a focus on communication between the Peabody Institute and White Earth, especially in cases where there are potential purchases or donations of cultural materials that originated from White Earth. This includes contemporary artwork, so that the White Earth THPO can track all White Earth cultural heritage. There are provisions for regular contact and exchange of information between the tribe and museum, and revisions to the MOU as needed.
  • The MOU specifies that the Peabody Institute will encourage potential donors and sellers to work directly with White Earth to transfer tangible and intangible cultural heritage materials to the tribe as the descendant community.
  • White Earth is the primary cultural authority over their cultural heritage materials in perpetuity. This includes provisions that the White Earth THPO must approve all requests to publish, research, disseminate, image, or exhibit said cultural heritage materials before the museum grants permission to the requestor.
  • The Peabody Institute and White Earth will collaborate to develop Traditional Knowledge (TK) labels for White Earth heritage materials held by the institution, formalizing some of the practices already in place (Local Contexts 2019).


Work with your institutional leadership to revise collections policies and procedures to center Indigenous voices. This should include policies that govern loans, exhibits, and research, updated to require descendant community approvals. At the Peabody Institute we have revised the documents that relate to loans and researcher access, making it clear that descendant communities must be involved at all stages of a project and that those communities must approve how Indigenous cultural heritage is used or exhibited.

Add Indigenous members to your museum leadership board or committee, and col- lections subcommittees. Members with particular geographic or cultural affiliation with collections that you hold will bring invaluable expertise.

If your institution is working on NAGPRA compliance or repatriation in general, consider having conversations with consulting tribes about MOUs that would vest


cultural authority and decision making on collections with those descendant communities.

Develop and implement a Care-and-Trust Agreement with the descendant communities represented in the collection to dictate the care, access, handling, and housing of collections while in the physical control of the institution. An agreement like this should apply to all relevant material within the collection regardless of repatriation status. Update webpages to indicate that your institution is open to collaboration with Indigenous communities, especially if the collections you hold are geographically and culturally diverse.

Educate staff and board members to help build a broad base of support for your efforts. This can include readings and coursework, as well as informal conversations about decolonizing work at all levels of the institution.


We thank Rose Buchanan for her help in understanding ongoing work to implement the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials.


Anderson, Jane. 2018. “Negotiating Who Owns Penobscot Culture.” Anthropology Quarterly 91 (1): 265–302.

Bacon, Anabel. 2009. “Warren King Moorehead: The Peabody’s First Curator, a Champion of Native American Rights.” Andover Bulletin 102 (2): 22–3.

Bloch, Ruth, Valerie Matsumoto, Kathryn Norberg, Janice Reiff, and Mary Yeager. 2008. “In Memoriam: Melissa L. Meyer.” Accessed October 12, 2021. https://senate.universityof

Bradley, James. 2018. “Negotiating NAGPRA: Rediscovering the Human Side of Science.” In Glory, Trouble, and Renaissance at the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology, edited by Malinda Stafford Blustain and Ryan Wheeler, 159–72. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.


Christen, Kimberly, and Anderson, Jane. 2019. “Toward Slow Archives.” Archival Science 19 (2): 87–116.

First Archivists Circle. 2007. Protocols for Native American Archival Materials. Accessed July 1, 2021.

Fritz, Henry, E. 1985. “The Last Hurrah of Christian Humanitarian Indian Reform: The Board of Indian Commissioners, 1909-1918.” Western Historical Quarterly 16 (2): 147–62.

Global Indigenous Data Alliance. 2019. “CARE Principles for Indigenous Data Governance.” Accessed July 1, 2021.

Local Contexts. 2019. “Traditional Knowledge Labels.” Accessed July 1, 2021. https://localcontexts. org/labels/traditional-knowledge-labels/.

Lonetree, Amy. 2012. Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Meyer, Melissa, L. 1994. The White Earth Tragedy: Ethnicity and Dispossession at a Minnesota Anishinaabe Reservation, 1889–1920. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Moore, Emily. 2010. “Propatriation: Possibilities for Art after NAGPRA.” Museum Anthropology 33 (2): 125–36.

Moorehead, Warren, K. 1914. The American Indian in the United States: 1850-1914. Andover: Andover Press.

Nash, Stephen E. 2021. “How Museums Can Do More Than Just Repatriate Objects.” Accessed July 1, 2021.

Nash, Stephen, E., and Chip Colwell. 2020. “NAGPRA at 30: The Effects of Repatriation.” Annual Review of Anthropology 49: 225–39.

National Park Service. 2016. “Notice of Intent to Repatriate Cultural Items: Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology, Andover, MA.” Accessed July 1, 2021. https://www.federalregister. gov/documents/2016/04/29/2016-10070/notice-of-intent-to-repatriate-cultural-items-robert-s- peabody-museum-of-archaeology-andover-ma.

National Park Service. 2017. “Notice of Intent to Repatriate Cultural Items: Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA.” Accessed July 1, 2021. repatriate-cultural-items-robert-s-peabody-museum-of-archaeology-phillips.

Robert, S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology. 2015. “Strategic Plan, 2015–2020, Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology.” Accessed October 12, 2021. files/PeabodyPlan2015_2020.pdf.

Seidemann, Ryan. 2008. “Altered Meanings: The Department of the Interior’s Rewriting of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to Regulate Culturally Unidentifiable Human Remains.” Accessed July 1, 2021. https://www.academia. edu/30027274/Altered_Meanings_The_Department_of_the_Interior_s_Rewriting_of_the_ Native_American_Graves_Protection_and_Repatriation_Act_to_Regulate_Culturally_ Unidentifiable_Human_Remains.

Society of American Archivists. 2021a. “Protocols for Native American Archival Materials: Information and Resources Page.” Accessed July 1, 2021. groups/native-american-archives-section/protocols-for-native-american-archival-materi- als-information-and-resources-page.


Society of American Archivists. 2021b. “Access Policies for Native American Archival Materials- Case Studies.” Accessed July 1, 2021. Native-American-Archival-Materials-Case-Studies.

UN General Assembly. 2007. “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Resolution Adopted by the General Assembly, 2 October 2007, A/RES/61/295.” Accessed October 12, 2021.

University of Maine. 2018. “Memorandum of Understanding Between the Penobscot Nation and the University of Maine System, University of Maine (Orono).” Accessed July 1, 2021. Penobscot-Nation-UMaine-MOU.pdf.

Author Biographies

Ryan Wheeler is the director of the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology, a museum at Phillips Academy, Andover MA. At the Peabody, he has advanced a strategic vision focused on collections, education, and repatriation. In 2017, Ryan co-founded the Journal of Archaeology & Education, the only academic journal devoted to the intersection of these two fields. Ryan lives with his family in Medford, MA.

Jaime Arsenault is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (THPO), Repatriation Representative, and Archives Manager for the White Earth Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. Ms. Arsenault has worked with Indigenous communities for over twenty years. Currently, she is a member of the Minnesota Historical Society Indian Advisory Committee and the Repatriation Working Group with the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA) and a member of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History Repatriation Review Committee. She is a Community Intellectual Property Advisory Board Member for the Penobscot Nation and sits on both the Advisory Committee and the Collections Committee of the Peabody Institute of Archaeology. Ms. Arsenault also serves as a MuseDI Partner on decolonization practice for the Abbe Museum.

Marla Taylor is the curator of collections at the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA. She has worked in all facets of collections management from cataloging to conservation to repatriation. Marla currently splits her time between leading an effort to conduct a full inventory of the collection and facilitating access to the Peabody’s collection for Indigenous nation partners, researchers, and educators.

NAGPRA, Repatriation, and Relearning History

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

This blog is an email response to a follow-up question from a journalist writing a piece about Seminole Tribe of Florida efforts to get the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History to repatriate ancestors being held there. A little context is necessary. Last year the Peabody Institute repatriated ancestors from Florida to the Seminole. We continue to work with them on repatriation of other ancestors from neighboring states. That repatriation included decisions about affiliation, a key concept in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The tribe referred the reporter to me for some background on the broader questions of affiliation and the question of Seminole ancestors at the Smithsonian. After I had a conversation with the reporter, they had a talk with the Smithsonian’s repatriation personnel. Here’s the question that prompted my response, “I spoke with _____ at the Smithsonian about repatriation, and he says one reason he’s not turning over many of the remains held by his museum is that the Seminoles came to Florida in the 17th and 18th centuries. Since many of his remains are older than that, he doesn’t consider them Seminoles. Of course, the Seminoles disagree and say they are still their ancestors. I’m wondering how you made the determination that the remains you had could be returned to the Seminoles.”

Many thanks for sharing that question. I read your message yesterday afternoon and experienced a welling up of sadness at the thought that so many ancestors held by the Smithsonian really have no pathway to repatriation. I thought about this all night, on and off, thinking about my own rather longer than necessary journey to understanding, and feeling sadness for the ancestors and their modern-day descendants, and sympathy towards my archaeological colleagues who are struggling with this.

I have a couple of things to share that I hope will be helpful—the first are academic sources that helped in making our affiliation decision, while the second are more personal experiences. Reading this over, they are really all personal experiences.

A good place to start is Patricia Wickman’s 1999 book The Tree that Bends: Discourse, Power, and the Survival of the Maskoki People (University of Alabama Press). Wickman tackles this idea that somehow the modern Seminole and Miccosukee are disconnected from more ancient Indigenous people of Florida. She makes the case that this is an intentional white-washing of history, much like the Mound Builder Myth of the Ohio Valley, which was used by nineteenth century Americans to justify a push west and a land grab. In other words, if these Indigenous people have no real deep connections to the land, moving them out is perfectly justified. The book was controversial when it came out, because it went up against what we had all learned in school—and when I say school, I mean from elementary through graduate school. And archaeology and ancestors are a big part of this—those cemeteries, burials, and physical remains of the ancestors are tangible proof of long tenure on the land. Eugene Lyon, who has a blurb on the back cover and is mentioned in the acknowledgments of The Tree that Bends, was a history professor at Flagler College, he also was a peer reviewer of the book. I called him after I read it and we talked for a long time. Gene shared that maybe there were other histories that we needed to look for, what we might call hidden histories, and that this probably was one of them. That book, with whatever faults it may have, and my ensuing conversation with Gene really was a major bubble in my own understandings of Florida history and who the Seminole were and are. Gene passed in 2020, a victim of COVID-19—he was 91.

I would point to a couple of other academic things that I had already known about when Patricia’s book came out. In 1956 Frances Densmore, an ethnomusicologist affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, published a monograph Seminole Music (Bulletin 161 in the Bureau of American Ethnology series). I found a copy of this in a used bookstore while I was in grad school at the University of Florida in the early ‘90s. What caught my attention was that she had recorded several songs that the Seminole attributed to the Calusa—one of those ancient Florida Indigenous groups that was centered in southwestern Florida. That means they knew about these people and had some close contact.

That Densmore monograph made me revisit William C. Sturtevant’s 1953 article Chakaika and the “Spanish Indians,” which was published in the magazine Tequesta. Sturtevant was an anthropologist at the Smithsonian. In the Chakaika article he tackles this question of connection between the Seminole and earlier peoples, based on oral history with Indigenous people and history as written by Anglo-Americans. It’s long and complicated, and not particularly conclusive, but it would appear that even in the early nineteenth century there were a number of Indigenous groups in Florida, including the Seminole and Miccosukee, as well as Choctaw, people of mixed Spanish and Indigenous ancestry, and Calusa. He doesn’t come to any definite conclusions, but all these people were around, and around a lot later than the conventional wisdom would have us believe. They knew about one another, and it’s pretty clear they adopted some cultural practices, like those songs Densmore recorded.

So, those are some academic books and articles that tackle this question of Seminole origins and identity that diverge, either a little or a lot, from the accepted wisdom. Now, onto some more personal observations. I knew a fair number of Seminole folx growing up, and the oral history accounts shared by Sturtevant rang pretty true, but were perhaps a little more vehement in the ‘80s: basically, we’ve been here a long time, we have deep roots and connections with the land, and anything else is nonsense. Hmmm, okay. I went to college with James Jumper. Jimmy was in his late 40s and I was in my late teens/early twenties. He had come to Florida Atlantic University to study criminal justice and went on to get a law degree and worked for the tribe. He lived in the dorm next to mine, but we often compared notes on our classes and I had taken some criminology classes too. We sometimes ordered a pizza or cooked in the dorm kitchen or on the grill outside. We sat around and chit chatted. I told him about the history and archaeology that I was taking. He was kind and patient, but challenged what I told him about Seminole origins. No, we’ve been here a long time, he told me. First bubble.

Archaeologists Christine Newman and Ray McGee excavate ancient dugout canoes at Lake Pithlachocco in 2000.

In 2000 Lake Pithlachocco (aka Newnans Lake—named after Daniel Newnan who led an illegal early nineteenth century invasion of Florida to wage war against the Spanish and Indigenous inhabitants) near Gainesville, FL dried up. I was an archaeologist with the Florida Division of Historical Resources at the time and we started getting calls about dugout canoes being found. We follow up and there were hundreds of canoes. We conducted a project and documented about 50, including many from 4,000 to 5,000 years old. These were all really old canoes! We published an article in 2003 in American Antiquity called Archaic Period Canoes from Newnans Lake, Florida. What struck me was the Seminole and Miccosukee response when some of the canoes were damaged by a man who was permitted by the state to remove old logs (deadhead logs) from the lake. You can look up the newspaper accounts. Without going into a lot of detail, the response was akin to that when human burial sites were disturbed. Oh, the original, Indigenous name of the lake—Pithlachocco—that means something like “boat house” or “place of boats” in the Creek language spoken by the Seminole. So, we have these supposed recent immigrants in the people that become the Seminole and Miccosukee acknowledging an ancient site. Is this a coincidence? Another bubble.

One of my jobs when I worked for the Division of Historical Resources was following up on reports of unmarked human burials, a responsibility of our office under state statute 872.05. This work, which I ultimately wrote an article about (September 2013, The Florida AnthropologistFlorida’s Unmarked Human Burial Law: A Retrospective, 1987-2010) put me in pretty regular contact with representatives of the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes. I learned a lot from this experience, especially from Fred Dayhoff, who was the NAGPRA representative for the Miccosukee. Fred was not a member of the tribe, but he had a long relationship with them, and dealt with the complicated issues of archaeology and ancestors and burials. I would let him know about discoveries and disturbances, he would consult with the tribal leadership and elders, then work with me on implementing some solution. As you will see, if you get a chance to read my 2013 article, the focus was on preservation in place and reburial. And long conversations with Fred, as well as the representatives from the Seminole tribe, made me again question what I had learned in school. There were connections between the Seminole, Miccosukee, and the ancient tribes, what NAGPRA refers to as affiliation. More bubbles.

Probably the last bubble came in 2009 or 2010 when we started to have meetings with the Seminole tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO), helmed at that time by Paul Backhouse (you can read the book they wrote in 2017 called We Come for Good: Archaeology and Tribal Historic Preservation at the Seminole Tribe of Florida). I don’t remember what prompted the meetings, perhaps it was just the formation of the THPO office and some work to partner and collaborate more (I was Florida’s state archaeologist at that time). One of the meetings, at their offices there at Big Cypress, next to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, included some conversations with several of their cultural advisors. These were tribal members who were traditionalists, with deep knowledge of cultural practices, that served to advise the employees of the THPO. They explained, patiently, yet firmly, about the Seminole beliefs not just about ancestors, but about all archaeological sites. Even the most mundane and quotidian sites—little campsites with pottery fragments and animal bones from meals. These were the places where the ancestors had lived, where they had cooked, where they had raised their families. I was blown away. I had never made these connections. And, it was full circle—it was all about land and connections to place. The final bubbles. I realized that what I had learned in school, from my beloved teachers and professors, was just flat out wrong. And not just wrong, but harmful and hurtful to Indigenous people because it perpetuated the idea that somehow these Indigenous people were newcomers. Think about that—how crazy is that? We literally have a story that places Indigenous people as the newcomers after Anglo-Americans!

The author’s family home in Broward County, Florida, August 2021.

Last week I sold my family’s home in Florida—where my parents had lived since 1969 and where they had raised me. It was incredibly difficult to say goodbye to that place, and I expect it will remain challenging for a while. So many memories, so many connections. This is what those Seminole cultural advisors were sharing with me in 2009 or 2010. But not just fifty years of connections, millennia of connections. Generations upon generations of people all doing those human things that we all do.

In reflecting on all of this, I think a couple of things. One, I’m embarrassed that it has taken me so long to connect the dots, to see those bubbles breaking through the surface of what I had learned, and understanding that I needed to relearn history. I’ve been holding the threads of this history in my hand for a long time and I still don’t understand why it’s taken me so long to put it all together. What I learned was wrong. Maybe because our institutions, especially our educational institutions are powerful, and maybe too, because we respect and love our teachers. How could they be so wrong? Two, all of the Indigenous people, both in Florida and elsewhere, have been so patient with me. I’m not sure I deserve it, but they were and continue to be nothing but patient. They have always been there ready to help those bubbles break through the surface. I am so grateful for that patience and kindness. Three, in putting this in the context of NAGPRA and repatriation, the legal bar for affiliation is pretty low. The law requires a preponderance of the evidence, and that means slightly more than fifty percent. Looking back at the literature, oral history, and my own experiences, that requirement is met and exceeded. I don’t know the Smithsonian’s repatriation law (the Museum Act) like I do NAGPRA. Perhaps there are different requirements? But, both laws are about repatriation. These aren’t museum laws that help museum workers figure out how to hold onto ancestors and collections, they create processes for facilitating repatriation. That’s the intent, the goal. Four, I feel for my colleagues who haven’t figured all of this out yet. My message to them is, it’s not too late. Listen to people, listen to the tribes. Relearning history is hard, but it’s healing. Returning the ancestors doesn’t just heal Indigenous people and communities. This is trauma we all share, especially those of us who are archaeologists and historians, and we all need that healing. I hope this is helpful. I’m glad I had a chance to write this down. I’ve been wanting to write it down for a long time, but its hard.

As a coda to this message, I would note that things are changing. All of our institutions, from the Smithsonian down to our little museum in Andover, are colonial enterprises. There is no escaping that. And, many personnel at these institutions are stuck, because of policies and practices put in place by others, because of political pressures, whatever, to not support repatriation. While we are still part of the colonial machine, it is possible to change—some of this is generational. Younger people “get it.” The Society for American Archaeology (SAA) did a survey a few years ago and it demonstrated just this—and, the whole field has flipped. In the ‘80s when NAGPRA and the Museum Act were being debated, SAA and the American Alliance of Museums (the big museum organization) were oppositional, with a small minority of archaeologists and museum professionals recognizing that repatriation was a pathway to addressing some of the harm done by archaeology and museums. That is reversed now, largely on generational lines. As older professionals retire and leave the field, they are being replaced by younger people with new ideas who are learning all of the histories.

The organizations are changing as well. The January/February 2020 issue of Museum magazine, published by the AAM, was dedicated entirely to decolonizing, highlighting work done by museums, tribes, and Indigenous scholars and curators to change the relationships between museums and tribes. In July 2021, the SAA issued a draft statement on acknowledgment of the harm caused by archaeological practice. SAA members were asked for input on the statement, which followed the SAA’s adoption of a revised statement on the ethical treatment of human remains. This was the first time SAA had revisited this issue for more that 30 years–the previous statement on repatriation dated from the 1980s, prior to the passage of NAGPRA and the Museum Act. Just a few days ago, the Southeastern Archaeological Conference (SEAC) issued a statement supporting NAGPRA, including the following:

The Executive Committee of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference (SEAC) acknowledges the centrality of research on Indigenous cultures to the founding and perpetuation of our organization and discipline. Aspects of this history, in particular the treatment of ancestral human remains, have caused harm. We acknowledge this problematic history and seek to move forward in mutually respectful and productive partnerships with tribal nations. 

It’s our job as museum professionals, as archaeologists, as scholars, as educators, to not only educate ourselves, but to make sure students are learning the history and are given the tools to critically examine what they are being told.

Research requires consultation

Contributed by Marla Taylor

The way the Peabody Institute is supporting collections-based research is changing. 

We are committed to involving Native American and Indigenous nations, communities, and groups in research efforts involving collections held by the Peabody (archives, photographs, and items), including decision-making about the appropriateness of research activities and analysis. As of November 2021, consultation with an authorized tribal representative is a required part of any application for access to collections. This is consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (September 13, 2007), specifically Article 11, which states that:

Indigenous peoples have the right to practice and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature.

This approach stems from the Peabody Institute’s commitment to practice ethical management in all aspects of the Peabody’s collection, and our response to the UN Declaration, which requires member states to:

provide redress through effective mechanisms, which may include restitution, developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples, with respect to their cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.

Preference will be given to research projects that are conducted by descendant communities or at the written request of those communities. The Peabody encourages researchers to foster their own relationship with geographically and culturally affiliated descendant communities. In cases where relationships have not been, or cannot be, established, the Peabody may assist with limited guidance on consultation on a case by case basis.

Researchers must submit a completed Collections Research Request Form to the Curator of Collections for evaluation.  Non-invasive techniques including, but not limited to, 3D scanning, pXRF, and x-ray, as well as invasive techniques, including, but not limited to, radiocarbon dating, compositional analysis, DNA, and isotopic analysis require the completion of the Analysis Request Form.

An International Collections Addendum form is necessary for collections whose origin is outside of the United States.

Prior to consultation, the Peabody Institute is able to confirm or deny the presence of the requested information and respond to general questions about the proposed research material. In some cases, a list may be provided to the researcher to assist them in conducting an effective consultation. However, no direct access or detailed information will be shared without appropriate community authorization.

The Peabody Institute recognizes that this is a shift in traditional museum research access practices. Our goal is prioritize Indigenous voices in any use of Indigenous cultural heritage and to make certain that research is conducted collaboratively with descendant communities.  All questions or comments can be sent to the Curator of Collections.

From Decolonizing to DAMS: the Beauty of Online Learning

Contributed by Marla Taylor

Over the last couple months, I was fortunate to take two online professional development courses – Decolonizing Museums in Practice and DAM for GLAM. These classes covered very different topics but overlapped in some really surprising ways.

The Decolonizing Museums class is directly applicable to so much of the work that I do every day. We have taken steps at the Peabody Institute to incorporate decolonizing into our collections management policy, researcher access policies, and NAGPRA implementation. I am proud of that work, but also wanted to take a step back and immerse myself in the scholarship behind this approach to museum management.

The class was filled with fascinating, thought-provoking, and occasionally uncomfortable readings that stretched my assumptions and gave me a new framework to view my role, as a white settler female, in managing an archaeological collection full of Indigenous material culture. The instructors and my classmates could not have been better. We represented a wide variety of museum roles and perspectives from across three different countries. We were all open and honest about when we were challenged by the readings and I found listening to others work through their decolonizing journey could be enlightening about my own.

Fortunately for me, one of my classmates was local to the Boston area and we were even able to meet up in person to discuss what we had been learning. She works with the collections at the Boston Children’s Museum. We bonded over our shared decolonization journey, but also our overall museum experiences, and an interest in knitting. We also discovered a collections link between our respective institutions and could seamlessly begin to support each other in repatriation consultations.

I loved the course.

DAM for GLAM was completely different. DAM = Digital Asset Management. GLAM = Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums. This course walked me through what a DAM is and what it can do for cultural institutions. Basically, a DAM is a system to track the digital surrogates of the physical items in the collection and the born digital materials that derive from them (think image of an item in the collection, a scan of an excavation map, digitized archives, a video of a presentation, or a course catalog). This course was less intuitive for me, but ultimately really valuable as I had previously struggled to even understand what a DAM was.

During the course, we were asked to use the collections that we were affiliated with as examples to answer the teacher’s prompts. As the questions were regularly about data management, access, and use rights, I would always answer them through a decolonizing lens. It was really helpful at times to apply the slightly more abstract concepts from the decolonizing class to something as practical as metadata. It forced me to think about how challenging the data management will be to make digital surrogates available to tribal partners, researchers, and educators.

I made some positive professional connections in that class as well through conversations about digital repatriation. I think I helped some people understand that making digital copies of everything that will be repatriated so that you still have access to a version of the item doesn’t really jibe with the idea of repatriation. If a tribe asks us to destroy digital copies of repatriated items (images or 3-D scans), the Peabody will abide by that request. Their cultural authority does not end at the physicality of the item, it encompasses the totality of the item. I am grateful for the opportunity to conduct these thought experiments and share with others.

While both classes were really valuable experiences, I want to discourage any of you out there from taking two courses at once while working a full-time job… just sayin’…

Need Help with NAGPRA?

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act became law thirty years ago. NAGPRA fundamentally changed the relationship between tribes, archaeologists, and museums, but there are still many challenges. Museums have over 120,000 Native American ancestral remains and some institutions have not yet consulted with tribes.

Image of tribal representatives in the Peabody Institute collection space with Marla Taylor, curator of collections
Marla Taylor (right), Peabody curator of collections, with Nekole Alligood (left) and Susan Bachor, representatives of the Delaware tribes, during a consultation meeting.

At the New England Museum Association annual meeting in November 2020 the Peabody Institute partnered with experts from tribes, museums, and federal agencies to answer questions about and discuss NAGPRA in a relaxed, welcoming, and no pressure workshop format. Seventy museum professionals participated, and we’ve had an opportunity to follow up with many of those folx since the workshop.

Representatives from the White Earth Band of Chippewa Indians during a repatriation with members of the Peabody Institute staff. From left to right: Bob Shimek, Kayla Olson, Ryan Wheeler, Merlin Deegan, and Bonnie Sousa.

But don’t fear! If you couldn’t make the November workshop, we are still available to help you, wherever you are in the process. NAGPRA might seem a little daunting at first, so if you would like to chat with Peabody Institute personnel, or get some specific advice on how to move forward, we are here to support you. Contact Peabody Institute director Ryan Wheeler at to set up a time to talk.

NAGPRA Resources

NAGPRA Community of Practice: Hosted by the University of Denver, this is a great space to ask questions and connect with others engaged in repatriation. Consider joining one of the Zoom calls that happen twice a month:

National NAGPRA Website: This is the National Park Service’s newly redesigned website with everything you need to get started, including links to the NAGPRA law and rule, databases, templates, and advice on how to get started:

NAGPRA Data Visualization: Curious about how NAGPRA has been implemented in your area or across the country? Check out Melanie O’Brien’s NAGPRA Data Visualization on Tableau:!/vizhome/NAGPRA-Totals/1_Reported

Home to Cape Cod

Contributed by Marla Taylor

Sometimes it can take years to repatriate ancestors and funerary belongings back to Native American tribes.  And sometimes, it can take just a few weeks. 

On November 9th, the Peabody partnered with the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (PMAE) of Harvard University to repatriate ancestors and belongings to representatives of the Wampanoag Confederacy.  From start to finish, this process took about six weeks – a credit to the partnership work with the PMAE and our established relationship with the Wampanaog.

We are always happy to see ancestors return home and have the opportunity to share that with so many wonderful partners.

Representatives of the Wampanoag Confederacy, the Peabody Institute, and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard pose for a socially distanced photograph

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.

Movie Magic – sort of

Contributed by Marla Taylor

Before COVID-19, the Peabody Institute kept our social media presence to Facebook and Twitter.  But this seemed like the perfect time to expand to Youtube. This is definitely a new medium for me and I was puzzled for a few days as to how I could contribute to this platform.  And then inspiration struck.

Phillips Academy is home to two cultural institutions – the Robert S. Peabody Institute and the Addison Gallery of American Art.  Our friends at the Addison created a delightful short stop-motion video about the work of a registrar and shared it on Facebook.  I thought it was fabulous.  And I also thought, I can do that!

Well, that started a project that took about a week of evening shoots after the kids went to bed, and an additional couple weeks of sound design (maybe I shouldn’t admit that it took that long…).  I wrote a short script and then cannibalized my boys’ Legos to recreate the Peabody staff and create sets.  I regret not taking a picture of the carnage to our play room to share, but I am relieved that it is all cleaned up now.

Framing and filming the stop-motion required a level of patience and detailed focus that was challenging for me at times but necessary to make the film work.  It is hard to remember to account for everyone and everything in the scene, but not to move it too much to ensure it was fluid.  It was pretty fun to hide details in the background too.

Adding the voices and music was a whole separate task.  I fully credit my husband with the patience to become my sound engineer.  He took all the lines, including those contributed by our 5 year old, and music and ensured that everything synced with the video – and made sure we weren’t breaking any copyright laws with the music use…

I think the end result is pretty great.  Viewers learn about what the Peabody does every day, from my perspective, and get to escape for about 3 minutes.

Enjoy Raiders of the Peabody Institute Collections!

Moving the Big Ones

Contributed by Marla Taylor

I have always thought of the Peabody’s collections storage as one of those sliding tile puzzles.  You have to keep shifting pieces that look like they are in the right place in order to end up with the correct completed final image.  Sometimes it seems never ending, but each shift makes the space more organized, cleaner, and more efficient.

A few months ago, I was faced with trying to find space for a couple dozen boxes that we agreed to store temporarily (maybe a year or so).  These objects needed discrete storage in a place that would not be disturbed.  This was a challenge, but one worth tackling.  After some thought, Rachel (Collections Assistant) came up with the idea of moving our large groundstone collection – that storage was discrete and in an area of the room that we rarely needed to interact with.  Perfect.

You may be asking yourself, What is a large groundstone?  Groundstone objects are stone tools that are formed by grinding and pecking away the larger stone into the desired shape.  These can include axe heads, portable petroglyphs, weights, as well as manos and metates.  The largest of these are often the metates, or grinding stones, that were used to prepare wheat and corn flour. Some of them are easily 40+ pounds!

The first task was dismantling the previous storage bays – a fun day with power drills and a sawzall.  Then I created a plan to install new shelving inside the bays that would be sturdy enough to support all the weight we were moving.  The photos may just look like shelves, but I am proud of all the precise measuring, leveling, and cutting with a circular saw and jigsaw that went into this project.  When we installed the shelves, everything fit perfectly.

To move the 183 objects we had to load everything onto trays and wheel them across the storage space – some were much too heavy to carry that distance.  A quick reinventory assigned everything a new storage location and the process was complete.  All told, this move took about a week.

I can’t pretend for a second that I did this project alone – massive thanks and credit to Rachel, Emily, John, and Ryan for their insights, object moving abilities, and skills with power tools!

Oversize storage
Look at those beautiful shelves!

Repatriation Conference 2019


This was the second year I participated in the Association on American Indian Affairs annual repatriation conference. The Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation hosted the conference at their hotel and casino complex just north of Phoenix, Arizona. Healing the Divide was the theme—with a focus on mind-body wellness and collaborative work between tribes and museums, both domestically and abroad. A real highlight was the session Healing the Divide from Trauma to Transformation, led by Dr. Noshene Ranjbar and Dennis Yellow Thunder. Noshene and Dennis had everyone up and moving, and Dennis was called on throughout the rest of the conference to supply encouragement, songs, prayers, and jokes. Presentations ranged from The Cost of Theft and Looting to Healing Auction Practices.

Bad weather prevented some folks from joining in person–here Shannon Martin, director of the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways, and Jaime Arsenault, tribal historic preservation officer of the White Nation, share their work. Jaime also is a member of the Peabody Advisory Committee.

Attendees had an opportunity to sit with NAGPRA program manager Melanie O’Brien, who shared some of the ways that the National Park Service was planning to revise and improve the federal repatriation regulations. Despite nearly three decades of repatriation work, 58 percent of the ancestral remains held by museums and federal agencies are still classified as culturally unidentifiable, with only a limited pathway to repatriation. Conference attendees acknowledged that the term “culturally unidentifiable” was troubling and inaccurate. Language is important, and there was a lot of discussion about how to best refer to ancestral remains–there was agreement that human remains and funerary objects were better called people, ancestors, and belongings. We also learned about international repatriation efforts, including the similarities and differences with work by indigenous Australians to reclaim ancestors.

Dr. Noshene Ranjbar and Dennis Yellow Thunder share important ways to interrupt cycles of trauma. Return of ancestors, funerary belongings, and sacred objects is one way to intervene.

Next year’s conference will be October 27 and 28, 2020—marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)—and held at the University of Denver Museum of Anthropology. If you are engaged in repatriation work this is an important event—it would be great to see more museum representation next year!