in Museum 

Repatriation in Canadian and United States Museums

Mac Swackhammer

With assistance of a Fellowship in Museum Practice from the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, the Yukon Historical and Museums Association, and the Canadian Museums Association, I was able to visit museums in Canada and the United States, interviewing museum professionals and scholars involved with repatriation of First Nations material culture to the communities of origin.

While I tried to be as thorough as possible, this was an opportunity for personal professional development, not a scholarly exercise. The topic could conceivably become someone’s Ph.D. thesis, and it deserves the attention. The depth of the impact and the variety of experience can only be briefly mentioned in [this report.]

My project intention was to interview museum workers and First Nations principals, and from these conversations determine attitudes behind the activities. This information would be used to develop possible plans of action for repatriation work, to be done with my local First Nation, under the Yukon First Nations Land Claims agreements.

I spent eight weeks in Washington, DC, working with curators and support staff; I also traveled across Canada and met with colleagues who had experience with repatriation activities at their museums.I met or corresponded with private museum consultants and government workers in Washington, Ontario, New Mexico, Alaska and Yukon. First Nations representatives from New York and southern Ontario (Iroquoia), Alberta (Piegan, Blackfoot, Plains Cree), south central United States (Cherokee and Sioux/Lakota) southwestern United States (Zuni and Navaho), British Columbia (Musqueam, Kwakwaka’wakw) and Yukon (Tr’ondek Hwech’in) were interviewed or participated in group discussions with other museum workers. Contacts were made with museum and repatriation workers in Alaska, but personal interviews will have to wait until summer when travel is easier. A total of 54 people were interviewed, creating 27 hours of taped conversation and discussion. These tapes have been indexed and transcribed; field notes of unrecorded conversations have also been transcribed.

I undertook this project because of recent developments in land claims treaty negotiation in Yukon. The Yukon First Nations Umbrella Final Agreement establishes three important principles related to museum collections:

13.3.1 Each Yukon First Nation shall own and manage moveable heritage resources and non-movable heritage resources and non-public records ... found on its settlement land ... An ethnographic object directly related to the culture and history of Yukon Indian People shall be owned and managed by the Yukon First Nation in whose traditional territory it was found;

13.4.3 Government, where practicable, shall assist Yukon First Nations to develop programs, staff and facilities to enable the repatriation of moveable and documentary Heritage Resources relating to the culture and history of Yukon Indian People which have been removed from the Yukon, or are retained at present in the Yukon, where this is consistent with the maintenance of the integrity of national or territorial collections.

So far, no-one in Yukon has much experience with repatriation activities, or complete understanding of the implications of these clauses of agreement. It was to see what these terms mean in other jurisdictions that I undertook this study.

Our negotiated style of repatriation, coupled with Land Claims agreements (and by implication, imbedded in questions of constitutional law) is completely different from the system in the United States where repatriation activities have been accelerated and controlled by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990). This Act requires all museums and institutions which receive federal financing, to inventory their collections of native human remains, funereal objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony (all categories defined by the law and its regulations), and to circulate these inventories (by 1997) to present-day tribal governments representing groups culturally affiliated with the communities of origin of the remains and objects. The tribal groups are then able to apply for the return of associated materials. There is no time limit for these requests.

To prepare my board and to gather information for the Dawson First Nation (Tr’ondek Hwech’in) I felt it was important to see the structure of the repatriation activities under the US law, under the Land Claims Agreement affecting the Niska’a and the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and within the local negotiated repatriation processes happening in Canadian regional museums. It was also interesting to see the affect of the CFN/CMA Task Force of Museums and First Peoples, five years after its release. It was particularly valuable to hear directly from representatives of various native communities regarding their traditional responses to human remains, ethnographic objects, and sacred materials.

The many systemic differences between Canadian and United States property law, treaty making and museum governance create a complex pattern of contrasts. Fundamentally, it appears to me, native people in the United States are working toward recognition of their intellectual property rights over the representation and presentation of Indian culture and knowledge created within the Indian community. They are using direct legislated property rights over physical material as a basis for this movement. To the despair of some museum workers, who contend unique information is being lost, repatriation claims are being extended far back into pre-contact history; embargos and restrictions are being requested over archival collections.

In Canada, where intellectual property rights are acknowledged, the First Nations are using this as a basis to establish aboriginal sovereignty over material property within treaty rights.

Significant difference exists between the attitudes of various scholars and museum workers in Canada and the United States. In part, I believe, because of the imposition of compromise legislation, designed to fit all circumstances but often proving to be inappropriate, many scholars and museum workers resent and passively resist the NAGPRA provisions. The recent case in which Yakima and Umatilla people near Kennewick, Washington have stated their intention to re-bury remains estimated to be 8,000 years old, have brought matters to crisis point for some. A consortium of independent scholars has applied for a court injunction to forbid the return, even though it is legal (others say required) under the NAGPRA legislation.

Human remains have not proven such a contentious issue in Canada, where most institutions follow the Task Force recommendations and return such material on request. (There have been surprisingly few requests). More important are the small-scale solutions to local issues, attempted in Canadian museums, through establishment of native advisory councils, community consultation, and the honorable tradition of accommodation.

In Canada and the United States, repatriation questions have changed completely the way museums do business, in every aspect of museum work. Conservation, storage and registration methods are being altered, to take into account Native understanding of the nature of objects and traditional classification systems.

The Dawson City Museum does not hold human remains, but does care for significant pieces of Han material culture, of special interest for the Tr’ondek Hwech’in. Within the year, work will begin on a local interpretation centre for native traditions and history. I am sure the museum will be called upon to assist the Tr’ondek Hwech’in in their requests for ethnographic material from museums in Canada and the United States. This study tour has developed important contacts and prepared me for the attitudes and activities we will encounter on this search.

My kind of research and method is open ended, with no real question to answer, so conversations can appear rather formless. But many conversations with a wide range of people begin to open into patterns of concerns and potential solutions to common problems. I wanted to hear what repatriation meant to the people involved. These things are matters of value and frequently contentious; it was generous of my colleagues all to share these personal things with me.

Because I am a folklorist by training and inclination, I tend to be more concerned and interested in contemporary people and culture than about the past and the ancients -- considering the past as one of several contexts which inform us about the present. I tend to see us -- scientists, anthropologists, archaeologists, managers, educators, and students -- as part of a culture of museum workers. Our small culture group shares a history, world view, rules of behavior and expectations unique to us.

The ethnographic objects and human remains with which we are working have meaning in our culture, as well as meaning in the culture and society of First Nations from which they originated. The depth of meaning and identity we invest in these objects and human remains varies from discipline to discipline, but we have to answer the same basic question that native people do within the repatriation exchange: "Who are we, without these things?" A truthful evaluation of the answer to this question is fundamental to successful resolution of any repatriation debate. At first the answer will likely be, "We will be less than we were before we gave the materials away."

I will be presumptuous, here, and borrow a teaching from the First Nations about the Give Away.

With the giving away of your most precious possessions you honor the recipient but you also honor yourself and the community you represent. While you may feel loss, be reduced in a material way, you are increased by the new relationships and stronger social bonds created and made visible, through the give away. The new relationships, new avenues of communication, created with the First Nations through the repatriation experience add to the museum’s strength, in ways which, I think, will more than compensate for the loss of these objects and human remains.

A Six Nations curator told me that white folks are too fixated on objects. He said Indian people tend to look at the world in terms of process. Maybe that’s because Indian languages are built on verb forms and modifiers; European languages tend to be based on nouns. The repatriation process, he said, should be considered not so much in terms of the objects and the remains but in close examination of the associated processes and results. In Canada these processes are described by First Nations with metaphors of healing and growth.

I am sure if we had paid more serious attention to the needs and concerns of living Indian people and their communities we might not have so much trouble with the remains of those who are dead. In Canada, issues of a racist justice system, of economic imprisonment on the disadvantaged reserves, of inadequate health care, education and housing, of existing as a number rather than a person under the Indian Act, of general exclusion from the benefits of the greater society, are all tied inextricably to questions of native self-determination, control over resources, land use, aboriginal entitlement and rights. Is the right to control aboriginal cultural and intellectual property to be recognized as an aboriginal right? It certainly has been recognized as such in the Yukon Land Claims agreements.

What is bundled with aboriginal rights in Canada continues to be negotiated. Fundamentally repatriation is an extra-constitutional issue, moving through self-determination, aboriginal entitlement, land claims and treaties rights. In Canada, legal ownership of aboriginal cultural property no longer in the possession of the originating communities is uncertain, according to Catherine Bell, in an article in the American Indian Law Review. The concept of communal or collective property combined with aboriginal visions of the sacred creates a system of relationships very different from others in Canadian legal traditions.

There has been very little litigation on these matters and less has been decided by the Supreme Court. But Canadian law is unique, in that it often seeks to find a compromise between liberal ideologies that promote the rights of individuals and collective concerns that promote the welfare of communities. Because of complexities in Canadian property law, the Indian Act, provincial cemeteries acts and federal and provincial legislation for protection of heritage resources, the likelihood of a successful repatriation claim, relying solely on a legal challenge in Canada, is slim.

When litigation was obviously failing to resolve conflict between First Nations and museums during "The Spirit Sings" exhibition at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, a typical Canadian way of compromise was attempted. It was the chair of the Assembly of First Nations, George Erasmus, who approached the Canadian Museum Association to hold a conference on museums and First Peoples. This led to a nation-wide task force which made important recommendations, but set no rules or regulations. It recommended against national NAGPRA-style legislation.

Most people in Canada are sympathetic to First Nations aspirations. Even though the legal obligations on them are weak, I think, most museum workers recognize First Nations’ moral ownership of cultural property and are working on new ways of handling collections which range from shared curatorial care in joint custody, loan agreements and complete return of some objects. To detail some of these responses is beyond the scope of this paper, but there is a growing bibliography on these activities.

While we museum workers are not a homogeneous bunch, much has changed since repatriation claims were equated with dangers of insect infestation and fire as a threat to the collection. Once we have determined that our major client is the community, not the collection, then new sense can be made.

Several anthropology curators have told me, in almost the same words, the paradigm is shifting, changing, being redefined. I don't know what this new structure will become, but I can typify the old by list in a chart of opposites:

sacred vs profane

religion vs. science

morality vs. legislation

culture vs. property

communal vs. private

process vs. object

radical vs. reform

them vs. us

Other curators described conciliation and attempts to find common ground between museums and First Nations. Several who have had conflict with trial groups or First Nations commonly suggested, "We have to break down the them vs. us mentality." Unfortunately the expectation for most is often for "them" to become more like "us."

Personally I don’t think this so-called common ground will be found in the middle of these old opposites. It will have to be something new. And, lucky for us, we are going to be part of it. A metaphor might be 3-D glasses. Look through the red lens and see only the green lines; through the green lens see only the red. But look through both at once and the brain does something magic -- a new dimension of information lifts off the page toward you.

For example, Marianne Kinkel’s recent work in art and anthropology has helped me see that storage is a form of representation, holding as much institutional value as those old dioramas with black savannah hunter gatherers, American noble savages and white industrialists in a pyramid. Modeling does not always have to be physical; the questions we ask in our study is a form of modeling. The conceptualization of our collection will either limit us or free us for redefinition.

It is no longer business as usual for museum practice, on all levels, not just public activities. Where new models will be found will not be in the dichotomy of conflict, exemplified by litigation, or even in activities which simple seek to "rebalance," since that also implies two opposing interests, but somewhere in the neighborhood of Indra’s net of jewels, or Robert Plant Armstrong’s idea of culture as a web.

We can’t minimize present problems. The NAGPRA process does seem to have been high-jacked in some ways, to meet an agenda beyond its purpose. Claims pushed back into the distant past, and attempts to exercise total control over intellectual property in today’s complex society, I don’t think were intended to be assisted with the NAGPRA legislation. The litigation process will overtake some of this. Unfortunately lessons to be learned from efforts of moderation, consensus building and integrative projects between museums and First Nations are lost in the polarized rhetoric.

Many curators mourn the loss of collections and the imbedded record of information, as they are being forced by law to return materials (often for reburial) when a less adversarial system may have led to new and creative dispositions through negotiation. Good models are being worked out several ways at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, with the Musqueam First Nation, where there is obvious and advertised partnership in many levels of operations.

To me, underlying NAGPRA legislation is a fundamentally racist world view, anti-intellectual and demeaning of both Indian people and museums. We are fortunate this has not prevented many affected tribal groups and curators from engaging in a reasoned search for answers, not only to the present law but to future museum-First Nation activities.

Jason Hall, American Association of Museums director of Government and Public Affairs pointed out a danger in the Canadian tendency to deal with repatriation issues on an ad hoc basic, case by case basis, rather than with over riding legislation. Eventually, he said, one of these decisions will go wrong, and it will have national importance, while all the good decisions will have had only local import.

I know this is a gamble we Canadians will take.

(Mac Swackhammer is the Director of the Dawson City Museum, Dawson City, Yukon, Canada. Mr. Swackhammer was a recipient of the Smithsonian’s Fellowship in Museum Practice and worked under the sponsorship of Thomas Killion, Director, Office of Repatriation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. This paper was originally presented at the April 1997 meeting of the Alaska Anthropological Association in Whitehorse, Yukon. A future issue of the Bulletin will include a more detailed report by Mr. Swackhammer on Canadian repatriation activities and policies. )

1. I would like to thank my sponsors: the Women’s Committee of the Smithsonian Institution, Nancy Fuller of the Center for Museum Studies, and Tom Killion, National Museum of Natural History Repatriation Office; plus the Canadian Museum Association and the Yukon Historical and Museums Association for financial assistance.

2. Yukon First Nations Land Claim Settlement Act and the Yukon First Nations Self Government Act. 14 Feb. 1995. Chapter 13 of the Yukon First Nations Umbrella Final Agreement deals with heritage.

3. I interviewed Smithsonian colleagues at the National Museum of Natural History Repatriation Office, the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the Center for Museum Studies; colleagues who had experience with repatriation activities at the following museums: Fort Erie Historical Museums; Woodland Cultural Centre, Brantford; Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto; Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull; Glenbow Museum, Calgary; Provincial Museum of Alberta; Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver; Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria; Museum of New Mexico, Laboratory of New Mexico, Santa Fe; Maxwell Museum, Albuquerque.

I met or corresponded with private museum consultants and government workers in Washington, Ontario, New Mexico, Alaska and Yukon. First Nations representatives from New York and southern Ontario (Iroquoia), Alberta (Piegan, Blackfoot, Plains Cree), south central United States (Cherokee and Sioux/Lakota) southwestern United States (Zuni and Navaho), British Columbia (Musqueam, Kwakwaka’wakw) and Yukon (Tr’ondek Hwech’in) were interviewed or participated in group discussions with other museum workers. Contacts were made with museum and repatriation workers in Alaska, but personal interviews will have to wait until summer when travel is easier.

4. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, 25 U.S.C. Public Law 101-602, signed 16 November 1990, is interpreted under the Department of the Interior 43 CFR Part 10, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Regulations, Final Rule, published 4 December 1995.

5. Turning the Page: Forging New Partnerships Between Museums and First Peoples, a report jointly sponsored by the Assembly of First Nations and the Canadian Museums Association (Ottawa: Assembly of First Nations and The Canadian Museum Association, 1993.)

6. See website < http://www.tri-cityherald.com/Bones/"Kennewick Man, the debate that spans 9000 years" > for full story reported in local Washington newspaper.

7. Catherine Bell. "Aboriginal Claims to Cultural Property in Canada: A Comparative Legal Analysis of the Repatriation Debate." American Indian Law Review. (17.2). pp. 457-521.

8. ibid. pp. 462-465.

9. Unpublished, private correspondence and conversation, December 1996.

10. Tivy, Mary. "Museums and Exhibits of First Nations: Old Paradigms and New Possibilities," in Ontario Museum Associations Annual/Annuaire Vol. II. Eds. Mary Lynn Williamson and Deborah Doxtator (Toronto: OMA 1993) p.p.s. 6-18.

11. Kuhn, Thomas. Structure of Scientific Revolutions. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.)

12. Unpublished, private correspondence and conversation, December 1996.

13. Armstrong, Robert Plant. The Wellspring of Culture. (Berkeley: University of Southern California.) 1970.

14. See paper by David Pokotilo on Museum of Anthropology experience doing exhibitions with Musqueam First Nation, to be published by Canadian Archaeological Association.


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