Exhibits taken off display until museums receive Indigenous consent

NEW YORK – Visitors to the American Museum of Natural History will find some parts of its collection off display, following new regulations regarding museums’ use of sacred objects and human remains belonging to Indigenous people.

“These halls displayed artifacts that may be objects of cultural significance,” a sign on the hallway that leads to the Eastern Woodlands and Great Plains halls now reads, “and the Museum does not have consent to display them.”

Exterior of the American Museum of Natural History [Rick Dikeman, Wikimedia Commons, CC 4.0]

Similar signs have appeared in museums across the United States, including Chicago’s Field Museum; the Logan Museum of Anthropology at Beloit University in Wisconsin; and the Denver Art Museum, among others.

These changes have occurred due to a change to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) that came into effect earlier this month. NAGPRA was a landmark law that allowed Indigenous tribes to begin reclaiming their heritage items – especially human remains – that were collected without Indigenous consent, often through outright looting of Indigenous sites. That said, NAGPRA has led to fewer repatriations to tribes than Indigenous advocates hoped for since its passage in 1990, with most collections still uncatalogued, much less turned back to descendants. Fewer than $60,000 have been collected in civil penalties due to NAGPRA, indicating the law has had little enforcement.

That could be changing with the new regulations, which came into effect on January 12. Under these rules, as reported by the Art Newspaper, museums will have five years to fully catalog their Indigenous collections – a timeline that could be extended if the institution demonstrates a “good faith effort” to make progress. The five-year timeline was an increase from the originally proposed two-year timeline.

There are, however, a number of other new timelines that were not extended from the proposal, and these are likely to have the most dramatic effects. Museums are now required to consult with Indigenous tribes over their collections and acquisition, acknowledge requests for repatriation, and receive consent to maintain their current displays. Until the museums can obtain this consent, the objects will be off display.

“The new regulations are crystal clear now: institutions do not own much of their Native collections and therefore, they must ask for consent from affiliated Nations before they can do anything with these items,” Shannon O’Loughlin, head of the Association on American Indian Affairs, told Artnet News. “When institutions actually have a conversation with affiliated Nations, they finally learn what they have in their collections.”

Museums have largely been supportive of the new rules in public. Jaap Hoogstraten, head of exhibitions at the Field Museum, is championing the process: “Working collaboratively with the Native communities is how we will go forward – and to be honest, this is a really joyful thing to do,” he said to CBS News. Newer exhibits, such as the museum’s “Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories,” already comply with the law as they were designed with the input of Indigenous people. Older exhibits are where the trouble lies. (The Art Newspaper reports that fewer than half of the artifacts in the Field Museum’s collection subject to NAGPRA have been repatriated.)

But there are challenges, especially in terms of resources necessary to comply. The American Alliance of Museums criticized the proposed rule last year, claiming the rules were “unachievable for institutions that are still reeling from the devastating impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on staff and resources.” Though their stance has softened following the publication of the final rule, the Alliance still calls the regulations a “substantial challenge” and calls for the Department of the Interior, which administers NAGPRA, to provide additional funding to institutions to help them comply.

One vociferous critic claims these regulations amount to a betrayal of science altogether. “We can expect bare display cases because some objects will be deemed too ‘spiritually powerful’ to display,” claims Elizabeth Weiss, currently a professor of anthropology at San Jose University, who believes that the regulation’s deference to Indigenous traditional knowledge will lead to “absurd narratives” from oral tradition preventing legitimate scientific inquiry. “Children will be told that objects have spirits, that Native Americans came from supernatural animals, and that shamans’ masks contain powers that one should fear.”

While Weiss’s concerns do not seem widespread – the majority of comments on the proposed rule were positive, and the criticisms were generally focused on challenges in implementation – debates over NAGPRA intent and enforcement have continued ever since the passage of the original law.

One famous incident was the debate over Kennewick Man, a 9,000 year old skeleton found by the Columbia River in Washington in 1996. For more than 20 years, custody of the skeleton was disputed between the Army Corps of Engineers, the Umatilla tribe, who claimed Kennewick Man under NAGPRA, and even the Asatru Folk Assembly, the white supremacist Heathen group, who seized on early claims that Kennewick Man’s supposed “caucasoid” features meant the skeleton belonged to an ethnic European population that had colonized the Americas before the arrival of Indigenous peoples. In 2017, Kennewick Man was turned over to a coalition of tribes in the Columbia basin following DNA testing that concluded he was most closely related to modern day Indigenous populations in the area.

Despite the complexities of repatriation and bringing meaningful Indigenous consent to these museum collections, the prevailing opinion seems to be that these regulations are an important step forward for tribes, museums, and the public.

“The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is an essential tool for the safe return of sacred objects to the communities from which they were stolen. Among the updates we are implementing are critical steps to strengthen the authority and role of Indigenous communities in the repatriation process,” said Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior and member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe. “Finalizing these changes is an important part of laying the groundwork for the healing of our people.”

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