With Pastor Stephanie on Sabbatical, members of the church were asked to give a reflective note for the NOUS's this summer in place of the Pastor's Note. Read below for this month's note from Stephanie Gardner, a reflection on Native American reparations.
Thoughts on Curatorial Work with Decolonization and Repatriation
By Stephanie Gardner
Curating an eclectic and several thousand artifacts museum collection has been a rewarding, if sometimes daunting, experience. A museum was first established at Bridgewater College in the late 1880s. It grew substantially with a 1954 gift from Tennessee farmer and Church of the Brethren minister Reuel B. Pritchett. Since Rev. Pritchett's 1954 gift, over three hundred other donors contributed artifacts to the collection. It was a labor of love on the creators' part and a way to preserve and share significant and curious artifacts. Rev. Pritchett collected a bit of everything, though he and later curators focused on the acquisition and educational use of natural history, regional history, Church of the Brethren history, and the history of technology.
When inventorying the museum collection in 2012 and 2013, I was not surprised to find that Native American stone and bone artifacts make up part of the artifacts grouping. Work in past museums showed me that such collections, even collections of Native human remains, are unfortunately, rather common.
Of course, the frequency of collecting Native artifacts does not excuse the practice. But Native remains were collected by Americans of European origin throughout much of the country's history. The military collected Native human remains and artifacts for medical study. They were later collected for anthropology and museum collections, often arranged to display a supposed superiority of the European races in the timeline of human development. And of course, they were looted for curiosity and to build, sometimes substantial, personal collections.
Most modern museum professionals recognize the wrongness of removing artifacts from Native graves and other sacred sites. Many of us are working to decolonize the museums- to remedy past wrongs by returning or repatriating collections to their people of origin. Dialoging with those who were wronged in the past and working with them to tell their own stories, instead of speaking for them, is also an important part of this work.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is the federal legal framework that mandates and guides the work of repatriation. Under NAGPRA, institutions receiving federal funding must inventory their Native artifacts, share the inventories with federally recognized tribes, consult on the cultural affiliation of the artifacts in the collection, and return artifacts to their people of origin.
NAGPRA governs several types of Native artifacts in museums. The remains of Native ancestors and the materials found with these human remains are covered by this law. NAGPRA also protects sacred artifacts and artifacts of shared cultural patrimony. That means important artifacts held in common by a group. For example, at Trinity Church, the water pitcher that we use each Sunday to remember our baptisms might be considered an item of cultural patrimony.
Utilitarian working artifacts, such as stone arrow and spear points, food grinding tools, and fishing tools are typically not regulated by NAGPRA. Native items give as gift or sold as souvenirs or artwork might also not be covered by NAGPRA. And you may have also noticed that this law applies only to those receiving federal funding- not to private collectors.
In addition to the legal compliance, working within the framework of NAGPRA has been a chance to practice human rights work. It is humbling to be the caretaker of sacred artifacts from cultures that are not my own. A first action was placing any funerary artifacts in top quality acid free storage containers by their associated groups. This seemed like a big improvement over the old open display cases where the artifacts were previously scattered and displayed.
When we completed the inventory and summaries of artifacts and reached out to Indian nations, it took a few years for a response. Happily, we are now in dialog with some Native nations. In NAGPRA consultation, we talk and listen about what happened in the past, how the artifacts are affiliated with a certain group of living people, and how the artifacts might be returned.
It can be emotional to consider the disrespect of Native human remains and funerary items across American history. Though having grown up without a Native worldview, I sometimes think about how I would feel if my ancestors were removed from our family cemetery and put in a collection where I had to undergo a long legal process to reclaim them.
I also know that not all US museums are complying with NAGPRA. The ongoing paperwork can be complicated and time consuming. Some small museums hide their legacy Native collections out of fear. And there are stories in the news about larger museums not complying. Private collectors who looted sacred Native sites and hoarded their findings have also been in the recent news. And the Smithsonian is not even regulated by NAGPRA- it follows another law.
I am happy that we are working hard at Bridgewater College to do the right thing. I've wept over ancestral remains with descendants and endeavored to care for them in a way that is respectful until they can go home. When I was in high school, I wanted to make a career of international relations. Though that didn't happen, being a curator has involved cultural human rights work within our own country.