US museum to return looted Wounded Knee artifacts to Indigenous tribes
The objects include clothing, weapons, and pipes, dating back to the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre when 250 Lakota men, women, and children were killed at the hands of the US government.
In a recent global campaign against museums to repatriate stolen artifacts, the US has been forced to face, as it should have a long time ago, to acknowledge the colonial brutality that founds some of its museum collections and still haunts the Indigenous Nations involved.
Government-funded institutions are required under The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 to credit their ownership of Native human remains and sacred cultural objects.
However, according to the National Parks Service, the 574 federally recognized tribes are impacted as less than half of over 200,000 objects cataloged have resulted in the receipt of stolen cultural property - a figure that reflects legal loopholes and institutional suspicions.
20 American museums and nine Indigenous tribes were awarded grants in the amount of $2.1m by the National Park Service in August to assist in the consultation and repatriation of ancestral remains and cultural assets in an attempt to increase enforcement of NAGPRA.
Founders Museum, a tiny library collection located in Barre, Massachusetts, becomes a central focus after being pointed at for "hoarding" Indigenous artifacts. But, earlier this month, more than 150 objects were returned to the Lakota and Sioux tribes in an official repatriation ceremony held at and by the museum.
The objects included clothing, weapons, and pipes, dating back to the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, which resulted in the brutal deaths of 250 Lakota men, women, and children at the hands of the US government. In 1973, the American Indian Movement occupied the site of Wounded Knee for 71 days to protest unbearable conditions on the reservation.
When Sacheen Littlefeather (Apache/Yaqui/Ariz) represented Marlon Brando at the 1973 Oscars, she spoke out against the abuse of Native Americans and rejected to receive Brando's award on his behalf. Littlefeather's career in movies came to an end as a result of the harassment and abuse she endured after the 60-second statement and during which she was jeered and booed.
Museum President Ann Meilus told Artnet News that the ceremony represents a three-decade effort, which was challenged by “third party interference” and member rejection.
The Woods Memorial Library Association, which oversaw the Founders Museum in 1993, agreed for the items to be returned to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The reservation's representatives in the Sioux nation sought funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to pay Sioux artisans to make duplicates of the artifacts.
That would guarantee that visitors would still be able to experience them firsthand without endangering the actual original artifact and generate Indigenous employment opportunities, but those attempts never went through.
Editor and publisher of New Horizon magazine and official representative of the Oglala Sioux tribe, Mia Feroleto, constantly visited the museum, prompting members of the Barre Museum Association to vote for the continuation of repatriation efforts under the supervision of NAGPRA specialist Aaron Miller.
Meilus relayed to Artnet News, “We just wanted to do the right thing and help the Lakota people heal from the tragedy they suffered,” as she added that the museum contains “one of the most pristine collections of Native American artifacts in the country."
According to AP, a large chunk of the collection was sourced in the late 19th century from traveling shoe salesman and circus impresario Frank Root who obtained the objects directly from soldiers following the Wounded Knee massacre.
Pine Ridge resident, Surround Bear, expressed to The Boston Globe that this is a symbol "towards healing”, but the efforts mirror only a quarter of the museum’s possessions taken from over 60 different tribal Nations around the US.
Restitution efforts have racked up this year, not just in the US but around the globe especially in Europe.
Glasgow Museums Institution said in June it will return seven Indian cultural artifacts plundered during British colonial control, a first for a UK museum service. Six of the objects were taken in the 1800s from northern India, while the seventh was unlawfully acquired after being stolen from its original owners.
Then in July, the Nigerian government signed a statement in Berlin stipulating the return of 1,130 Benin Bronzes from Germany. That was followed by the Horniman Museum in London pledging to return 72 treasured artifacts, including its collection of Benin bronzes, to Nigeria.
In August, Washington announced plans to return 30 stolen antiques to Cambodia, including bronze and stone statues of Hindu and Buddhist deities, which were carved over a thousand years ago. Later that month, The Netherlands returned 343 pre-Hispanic era ceramics to Panama following a campaign to protect the Central American country's cultural heritage and restore artifacts that were taken out during the 1900s.
Finally, in September, prosecutors in New York returned dozens of artifacts stolen from Italy and valued at roughly $19 million, including some discovered in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Earlier this month, the Peabody Museum at Harvard University admitted that it owns a collection of hair samples taken from Native American children at state-sponsored boarding schools in the 19th century, insisting in an official apology that restitution efforts have been initiated.