Natives at the Museum: Repatriation and the Reconceptualization in the Museum Space

The Dartmouth, May 16, 2019

“In 2002, the Hood Museum returned a Tlingit Chilkat shirt to southeast Alaska. The shirt, which was said to have been made before the 1880s, had been in possession of Axel Rasmussen, the superintendent of schools in Wrangell, AK. After his death, it found its way into the possession of a New York City art dealer, and when it was not sold, it was donated to Dartmouth in 1959. 

In 1995, a delegation of Tlingit people came to Dartmouth, recognized the robe and was able to recount the legend about two brothers who inherited a “naaxein” (Chilkat blanket) and cut it in half to create two tunics to share. Since the object has sacred and ceremonial value as well as continued cultural relevance in the Tlingit community, it was returned under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a law which dictates that if an item can be traced to a particular group of people as the rightful keepers, it must be given back to them. This was an ideal case of repatriation under NAGPRA, but sometimes things are not so clear-cut, especially when international law gets involved.

Despite the complications, repatriation of these sorts of items is still feasible for all museums, especially when we rethink museum’s relationships to indigenous communities, objects and artists.   Late last year, five ceremonial objects that had previously been in the possession of galleries, auction houses and private collections all over the world were returned to Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico. These items, at the discretion of the Acoma Pueblo people, will not be on display and have not been named in press releases because Acoma society restricts ceremonial knowledge to a select few.This is one example of why items like these need to be returned — they are sacred objects that were never meant to be outside of the Pueblo and are not mere aesthetic objects for people outside of the community.”

More here.