The Massachusetts Museum repatriates artifacts from the Wounded Knee Massacre to the Lakota and Sioux nations

Amid the growing global chorus of demands for the repatriation of ill-gotten artifacts, museums across the US have been forced to confront the colonial brutality underlying some of their collections. This institutional introspection included closer scrutiny and study of Indigenous artifacts, many of which entered museums during a frighteningly disparate chapter of “ethnographic” collecting and curating in American history.

The Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed in 1990, requires federally funded institutions to recognize their ownership of Native American human remains and sacred objects. So far, less than half of the more than 200,000 objects cataloged have resulted in the 574 affected federally-recognized tribes receiving stolen cultural property, according to the National Parks Service, a number that reflects a constellation of legal loopholes, bureaucratic paperwork and institutional inertia. That makes the Founders Museum, a tiny library collection in Barre, Massachusetts, an anomaly in conversation: Following allegations that it “hoarded” Indigenous artifacts, the museum allowed more than 150 objects to be returned to the Lakota and Sioux tribes in the beginning An official repatriation ceremony was held at the museum earlier this month.

Tribe members received clothing, weapons and whistles, some of which date back to the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, a US cavalry ambush that killed more than 250 Lakota men, women and children. This hard-fought handover represents the culmination of nearly three decades of institutional effort that has been challenged by “third-party interference” and member denial, said museum president Ann Meilus Artnet News.

In 1993, the Woods Memorial Library Association, which oversaw the Founder’s Museum at the time, agreed that the items would be returned to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Representatives of the Sioux nation then devised a plan to seek funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to pay Sioux artisans to produce duplicates of the artifacts to ensure the founders’ collection remained accessible to visitors. while creating indigenous employment opportunities. These plans never came to fruition.

In January of this year, Meilus tried again to have the artefacts returned. While NAGPRA protocols technically don’t apply to the museum as it receives no federal funding, Meilus took inspiration from the law to guide her restitution efforts, ensuring the items were appropriately photographed and tested for arsenic and mercury, compounds, these were historically often used to preserve animal skins.

After visits by Mia Feroleto, Editor and Editor of new horizon Magazine and official representative of the Oglala Sioux tribe, members of the Barre Museum Association voted to continue the repatriation effort led by NAGPRA specialist Aaron Miller. “We just wanted to do the right thing and help the Lakota heal from the tragedy they suffered,” Meilus said Artnet Newsadding that the Founders Museum has “one of the most pristine collections of Native American artifacts in the country.”

Much of the museum’s collection came from Frank Root, a traveling shoe salesman and ringmaster in the late 19th century who, according to the Associated Press, acquired the items directly from soldiers after Wounded Knee. While Pine Ridge resident Surround Bear narrated The Boston Globe that the gesture represented a “step toward healing,” the work is not over. According to Meilus, the repatriated pieces represent only a quarter of the museum’s holdings, which come from over 60 different tribes across the country.

While the Founders Museum has engaged in proactive provenance research and repatriation, other restitution efforts have progressed more slowly or not at all. In a November 2 speech to the trustees, British Museum chairman George Osborne again dismissed calls for the Parthenon marbles to be returned to Greece. The Digital Benin platform, an online resource cataloging looted objects from the Edo Kingdom in southwestern Nigeria, marks a major step toward ethical asset repatriation. And earlier this month, the Peabody Museum at Harvard University admitted It holds a collection of hair samples taken from 19th-century government-sponsored Native American children at state-sponsored boarding schools and insists in an official apology that restitution efforts have been launched.

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