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The Founder Museum and Native American Objects: A Happy Ending Story in a Still Problematic Context


Image source: Leola One Feather, of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, observes as Native American artifacts are photographed in Barre, Massachusetts, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/massachusetts-museum-returns-wounded-knee-artifacts-to-sioux-tribes-30-years-after-process-began-180981100/


Admiring the collection of a museum is a simple but immersive way to engage with different forms of art, culture, history, and traditions. It is supposed to be an educating experience meant to enrich whoever is living it. However, this is not always the case. Often, cultural objects lack context, appropriate interpretation, and correct information. Sometimes, the items on display hide a dark and bloody past, which is kept away from the eyes of the visitors, who, unaware of what they are looking at, just walk away.


This has been the case of some Native American cultural objects kept at the Founder Museum in Barre, central Massachusetts, until Renee Iron Hawk, together with some other American Indians identified them as looted after the Wounded Knee massacre. As she stated, “Going through those cabinets, looking at these items of our people with the light from our phones, it was just something deep to me…It felt like the breath went out of me. I had to sit down and rest. I had to say a prayer.”[1] The objects were belonging of daily and religious life, items that people would use and that represent their cultural tradition. For instance, the museum had pairs of beaded moccasins, ceremonial pipes, and cradleboards, which were used by women to carry their babies on their back.


According to the report provided by the Founder Museum, after Wounded Knee, the items had been sold by gravediggers to Frank Root, a travelling shoe salesman from Barre who used them as a part of his Wild West rodeo show before he donated them to the local museum.[2] Ann Melius, president of the Founder Museum, claimed she tried to return the items for thirty years, but she was always interfered by third parties changing of minds. Eventually, due to the combined effort of Renee Iron Hawk, her husband Manny, and their group Heartbeat at Wounded Knee (HAWK 1890), which includes American Indians whose relatives were either killed or barely survived the massacre, the items were returned to the Lakota and Sioux tribes in 2022. Despite the happy ending of this story, the objects mentioned, represent a very small portion compared to the 780,000 items and possessions that were stolen from the Native Americans and that are still in American hands. However, the history of the objects made them a good case study to not only explore one of the darkest events in the American history, but the disrespect of museums and collectors in dealing with these cultural objects.


Towards the end of the 19th century, the Native American population was struggling: the buffalos, on which they depended, were gone, and the people were being forced off their lands into reservations by the Americans, who betrayed them by breaking treaties of peace. A census from 1890 reports that “Indians were vanishing”.[3] In these worrying conditions, the Native American population turned to the Ghost Dance religious movement.[4] It originally begun among the Paiute in 1869, when one of the elder members, Wodziwob, had a series of visions foreseeing help for the people as predicted by their ancestors. At the time, the Native Americans were dying because of European diseases, and Wodziwob’s visions were a mix of cataclysms removing the Europeans from the Earth and, later on, an immortal and peaceful life for those who practiced his spiritual teaching.[5] In 1889, one year before Wounded Knee, the northern Paiute Wovoka, had similar visions. He saw the disappearing of the European settlements, the return of the buffalos, the resurrection of the ancestors, and the stolen lands returned to the Native Americans. Overall, they were prophesies of peace, and the movement was peaceful as well, and people from different tribes would travel to see and speak with Wovoka. The main component of the Ghost Dance was a traditional round dance in which participants held hands and danced around a pole or a tree while singing. As it is reported by James Mooney, a scholar of American Indian culture, the dance induced a hypnotic state, and people tried to achieve trance and have visions.[6]


Although the Ghost Dance was a peaceful movement based on religion and desperation, many European Americans were alarmed by it. They were particularly concerned about the Lakota, who were thought to have developed a militaristic approach to the Dance and “ghost shirts” that would protect them from bullets. In fact, this was a misunderstanding among the tribes’ representatives to Wovoka: the shirts were religious items, which were supposed to have spiritual power. They had nothing to do with war, or bullets. In December 1890, the Native American police was sent to stop the rise of the Ghost Dance. The police tried to arrest Sitting Bull, one of the most famous Sioux leaders highly respected among the Lakota. However, an alteration broke out and he was shot and killed. After that, Sioux Chief Spotted Elk, known among the Whites with the derogatory name of Big Foot, was joined by militant groups from other tribes. However, after a few days of defiance, Spotted Elk informed the American military authorities he would peacefully surrender at Wounded Knee. Because he failed to notify this within the appointed time, the American Government issued his arrest, and sent the US Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment to oversee the operation and the disarming of the militant group. It is important to understand that Native Americans showed no interest in fighting, and they had women and children with them. Also, weapons were cherished possession and tools for living among the tribes, so the disarming was felt as particularly offensive. After some agitation, a rifle from Black Coyote, considered to be crazy, accidently went off and the massacre begun. 250 Dakota men, women and children were brutally slaughtered, and their bodies were found scattered for two miles from the camp. The tepees were sat on fire, around 200 objects were looted, and the American soldiers were awarded with the Medal of Honour for the service provided to the country. Exactly 100 years later, the American Congress issued a former apology for the Wounded Knee massacre, and, the same year, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was enacted.


The NAGPRA provides a process for federal agencies and museums to receive funds to inventory, catalogue, and repatriate or transfer from their collection certain Native American cultural items to their descendants after consultation with the concerned tribe. The Act covers human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. The Act establishes a permit requirement for those who wish to excavate any item from the categories just mentioned from federal or tribal land. Also, this permit is conditioned upon approval by the involved tribes, and it must agree with the Archaeological Resource Protection Act (APRA). In addition, NAGPRA states that new discoveries, i.e., objects or human remains, found in federal or tribal lands must be returned to the tribes after careful analysis and consideration.


It is important to mention that the expression “new discoveries” here refers to items found after 1990. Hence, in the case of objects whose discovery dated before that year, the right to claim rests upon the claimant’s ability to prove cultural affiliation. Where this cannot be provided, the remains are officially defined as “culturally unidentifiable”, and not subject to repatriation. The most notable example of the difficulties that objects without a clear cultural affiliation must face come from the 9,000-year-old skeleton discovered along the Columbia River in Kennewick in 1996.[7] The skeleton was known among the Native Americans with the name of the “Ancient One”. The remains were claimed by a tribe that claimed to have a linear connection based on oral histories and ancestors. The Army Corp of Engineers agreed to the restitution, following the standards set by NAGRPA, but a group of scientists opposed. Basing their position on §3001(9) of the statute, they claimed that the tribe had to prove present cultural relationships with the item requested. In 2004, the 9th District Circuit agreed with the scientist, and blocked the repatriation of the skeleton. However, ten years later, new technologies allowed a DNA to connect the skeleton to the current Colville tribe, which was granted with its return, and reburied in a secret place.


The repatriation of Native American human remains, or cultural objects can be problematic. As the example shows, linking ancient items with the present can be challenging. According to a report published by the Art Law Center, some of the elements that make the application of NAGRPA difficult can be found in the lack of communication, the ambiguity of the statute, the international loophole, and ethical concerns.[8] Despite the increasing effort of American courts in siding with tribes, such as in Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe v. United States (2022), the dialogue between tribes and government has been historically difficult. As it is stated in the 2020 NAGRPA’s report, 62% of surveyed tribes felt that federal agencies did not sufficiently consider the tribal interests. The consequence of communication issues is a lack of understanding, which affects the fate of several cultural objects and lands. The language used in the Act also presents a reason for concern. NAGRPA in fact covers religious objects. However, the distinction between religious and secular is not always clear, and Native Americans have often felt uncomfortable in openly declaring the religious nature of an item. Such action would be in violation of the sacred rule against disclosing secret information outside of the tribe. Therefore, the very Act meant to protect the Native Americans’ interests seems to be indifferent to their culture and tradition. The last two issues belong to the legal and ethical fields. The Act only applies domestically. So, if an item is found in federal or tribal states within the borders of the United States is subjected to be analysed in conformity to NAGRPA. However, this rule does not apply in case of belongings exported for sale in foreign countries. Therefore, tribes have to rely on the morality of the government if they want to gain repatriation. Finally, the Act addresses the items in terms of property rights. However, many tribes considered sacred objects or the remains of their ancestors not as a property, but as a “a fundamental, inalienable part of personal and tribal identity”.[9] The Act hence fails to understand the very subject it means to protect, and it in fact reinforces the apparently unbridgeable distance between Whites and Native Americans.


The story of the Wounded Knee items at the Founder Museum has a happy ending: after years of fighting, they returned to their legitimate owners. After being used misused in rodeo shows, and kept on a dusty display, they have finally found the respect and dignity they deserve. Using this example to show the improvement in the relationship between museums and objects stolen from the Native Americans would be misleading. In fact, European and American museums still hold thousands of these cultural objects, showing an overall disrespect towards the culture they represent. Several items belong to the religious sphere and are not supposed to be on display for everyone to look at. Refusing to repatriate them implies the acceptance of the way in which they had been taken. Furthermore, ignoring the original context of the items, such as those from Wounded Knee, is the highest form of disrespect. They are not, in fact, objects that are simply related to a tradition, but they echo the slaughter of men, women and children, and one of the darkest moments of American history. Ignoring that is ignoring the past, the history, and the years spent fighting for Native Americans’ human and cultural rights. The path towards fair restitutions might not be an easy process, but denying the respect and the dignity that these objects’ history carry is destructive, and it will contribute to the definitive erosion of Native American culture.

[1] Hedgpeth, Dana , “Native Americans Fight for Items Looted from Bodies at Wounded Knee”, The Washington Post, 2022 https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2022/07/17/stolen-wounded-knee-artifacts-native-americans/ [2] New York Times, “Museum Set to Lose Indian Treasure”, 1993 https://www.nytimes.com/1993/02/19/us/museum-set-to-lose-indian-treasure.html [3] Hedgpeth, 2022. [4] Lesser, Alexander. "Cultural Significance of the Ghost Dance." American Anthropologist 35.1 (1933): 108-115. [5] Ibid [6] Mooney, James. “The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890.” Published in the Fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, 1892-93, Part 2, pp. 922 -926 [7] Douglas Preston, The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets, Smithsonian Mag. (Sept. 2014) [8] Zheng, Christopher, “31 Years of NAGPRA: Evaluating the Restitution of Native American Ancestral Remains and Belongings”, Center for Art Law, 2021 https://itsartlaw.org/2021/05/18/31-years-of-nagpra-evaluating-the-restitution-of-native-american-ancestral-remains-and-belongings/ [9] Ibid

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