Guest Article: 2016 Indigenous International Repatriation Conference: A Global Dialogue on “Shifting the Burden” in Museology

Written byBlaire Topash-Caldwell*

Last fall the Association on American Indian Affairs held the 2016 Indigenous International Repatriation Conference at Isleta Resort and Casino in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Centering on a theme of “Shifting the Burden,” the topics and discussions covered in this important event ranged from viewing repatriation in terms of morality and human rights frameworks to providing research tools and strategies for tribes to use in their engagements with the labor intensive work of repatriation in their home nations or across international borders. The conference was well attended by not only museum professionals, but by state officials, tribal leaders from all over the world, Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, policy makers, art students from the Institute of American Indian Arts, anthropologists, tribal lawyers, elders, and even law students from the University of New Mexico just to name a few.

I attended this conference as a volunteer. As a result, I was not able to hear from panelists in all sessions. However, my experience of the important dialogues taking place have largely centered on both Native and non-Native  collaboration as well as the recognition of shared cultural and historical ethics between tribal communities and museums, even in distant places. These entanglements are realized in moments when Native peoples are able to effectively have agency and voice in the development of museology around the world. One panel entitled, “Museums: Meaningful Consultations, Ethics & Policies in International Repatriation” provided particularly telling examples of these challenges and developments. Panelists discussed that with the adoption of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and sometimes with the consultation requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), nationally there have been important strides toward the protection and repatriation of ancestors, ceremonial items, and other objects of cultural patrimony. The international arena, however, is a completely different story. Panelists discussed that not only are there limited or nonexistent legal recourse for tribes to have their ancestors and scared objects returned to them from other places around the world; but it is also compounded by different cultural expectations and language barriers. One panelist, Colleen Medicine (Sault Ste. Marie Tribe), Cultural Repatriation Specialist, shared her experiences in the unsuccessful repatriation of an Ancestor from the Karl May Museum in Germany. One particularly telling example of this issue comes from her story about the trip she and tribal members took to the museum. Medicine and her colleagues traveled to the Karl May Museums in order to explain the spiritual and material violence the museum was causing as a result of putting our Ancestor on display. By coincidence, during this ineffective meeting, the town outside erupted in an exhibition of Native American “culture” with German citizens dressing up and parading about in their debaucherized interpretations of Native North American regalia. Medicine’s story showcases the challenges that Indigenous peoples around the world face when their limited power and legal agency is coupled with seemingly incompatible ethics and worldview of colonial or otherwise more powerful nation-states.

Another example, however, shows promise for the impact that meaningful dialogue can have in museum relations with Indigenous communities. Marcella LeBeau (Cheyenne River Sioux), Wounded Knee Survivors Association, told a compelling story about her experiences repatriating a Ghost Dance shirt from the Kelvingrove Museum in Scotland. Working with the museum and ultimately providing them with a non-ceremonial copy of the shirt, LeBeau’s work not only resulted in the successful return of this sacred object, but opened up creative exchange of ideas between Native peoples and the museum. These exchanges ultimately had material effects on the structure of Scottish cultural resource management policy and practice such as the development of repatriation policies and protocols which did not previously. This process of repatriation, and experiences similar to it, are what we as both Indigenous peoples and intellectuals hope the future of museology can be.

Rebecca Tsosie (Yaqui), Professor of Law and Special Advisor to the Provost for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Arizona and James E. Rogers School of Law gave a powerful keynote address at the conference. Contextualizing the unequal scale of power for some groups’ cultural patrimony over others, she asks (not verbatim), Do you think an American object of national patrimony like the Constitution or the original American flag would sit in the British Museum? Of course not! That would demand it back; and they would get it! As the original Native nations to this land, she argues that we deserve the same agency and power. She also pointed to the crises of “check-the-box” style consultation of some museum professionals and state officials while drawing parallels in her speech to the joke that capitalist enterprises make of cultural resource protection laws. This is, Tsosie argues, particularly problematic when large amounts of capital and private property are in involved since these powerful and large-scale undertakings often evade cultural resource protection laws like NEPA and NHPA. As such, Tsosie’s passionate speech recognizes the concurrent Dakota Access Pipeline protests (NoDAPL) when she asks what we are to do in an age when increasingly desperate and lethal forms of natural resource extraction are not only demolishing our Ancestors and sacred sites, but our access to clean water? What good does consultation do when we aren’t operating within the same set of moral obligations to Mother Earth, to our children, and to our grandchildren? Whose burden is it? Indigenous peoples cannot carry that burden alone.

Paralleling the issues of this event, a field hearing was held on October 18th by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Committee discussed how to prevent the trafficking of Native American objects of cultural patrimony and ceremonial items across national borders. The office of Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) chaired the hearing and released a comment stating that “New
Mexico is home to 23 tribes whose cultural heritage is harmed by the theft of sacred and culturally significant objects, and the illegal trafficking of sacred and cultural items is an issue for tribes throughout Indian Country.” In response to this issue, Udall has sponsored a resolution called Protect Patrimony Resolution which “condemns the theft, illegal possession or sale, transfer, and export of tribal cultural items.” These critical discussions in the academy, in museums, and at the policy level all revolve around the central challenges of our time: attaining the full actualization of the conditions of representation authority of our heritage, the rights of our Ancestors to walk on in peace, and the shared moral imperative we all have to each other, future generations, and Mother Earth.

*Blaire Topash-Caldwell is an enrolled member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico. Her research focuses on environmental policy, Native American women’s role in the protection and revitalization of local ecologies, and the role that coalitions between non-tribal environmental agencies and Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge holders play in the resistance of invasive resource extraction in the Great Lakes region.