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common ground

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
Fall/Winter 1995, vol. 7(3)

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*  Life After Museums

(photo) Edward Halealoha Ayau, Hawaiian heritage activist.

"Until the 1960s, Indian children grew up playing "Cowboys and Indians," and more than likely, they wanted to be the cowboys. They never wanted to be anthropologists, however, and today there are less than 70 Indians in the profession."

Rosita Worl

by Burkhard Bilger

Museums often seem like graveyards of culture, places where objects are brought when they have lost their function in our lives. This holds especially true for Native Americans, who too often see their heritage displayed behind glass. Kevin Smith, cultural coordinator at Tulsa's American Indian Heritage Center, can remember seeing a Pawnee medicine bundle (a collection of sacred ceremonial objects wrapped in buffalo hide) on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. "I'm not Pawnee, I'm Cherokee," he says. "But I was extremely offended. I remember thinking, 'This should offend anyone with feelings for the sanctity of another person's religion.'"

As federal repatriation laws come into effect, such displays are becoming things of the past. The laws cover not only human remains and the favorite possessions buried with them, but objects still used in Indian ceremonies and important communal belongings such as Iroquois wampum belts or Delaware Mesingw outfits (Mesingw is the guardian spirit of game animals).

Museums were given three years to inventory their collections and send lists of such goods to tribes that might claim them. While the effort is costing established museums dearly (Congress has never appropriated the funds originally meant to pay for the act's requirements), it is a great boon to tribes struggling to preserve their traditions.

It is hard to talk to Oklahoma tribes these days without hearing about cultural centers in the making. The Osage, the Creek, the Wichita, and the Chickasaw already have them, and most others are planning. With 37 federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma, such museums seem on the verge of a great flowering. Lydia Wyckoff knew she had come to the right place when she moved to Tulsa's Philbrook Museum from Yale's Peabody Museum two years ago. With repatriation in the offing, places like Philbrook were having to reach out to Oklahoma tribes for the first time in years. While some ceremonial goods would leave collections, many more would return in the form of traveling exhibits. "Native Americans are aware that sacred material must be properly taken care of," Wyckoff says. "They can either build a museum that has proper temperature, humidity, and light control--and that's very, very costly--or work with them on exhibits in our museum."

Wyckoff has separate exhibits in the works with the Otoe, Osage, and Delaware tribes. "The Delaware will help us exhibit their things, and we will make a video about the Big-House religion [a religious ceremony last held in 1924]." Wyckoff doesn't want to tell the tribes how to design exhibits around such traditions. "The whole point is to give them back the control which European Americans took away. Why should museums perpetuate that by telling them what kind of museum they can have?"

Some tribes hope to take such autonomy a step further. The Chickasaw are working to create a Smithsonian-type national museum of the American Indian--the Museum of Indian Territory--in Tulsa; the American Indian Heritage Center also hopes to find permanent digs in Tulsa, and a consortium of 30 tribes has taken out a lease on property outside Oklahoma City, where it hopes to build an Oklahoma Institute of Indian Heritage. All three face the challenge of fundraising and collection gathering.

AIHC is perhaps further along. Founded by Native Americans two years ago, the center is based at Tulsa's Harwelden and has sponsored Indian art shows at Philbrook and Gilcrease. It primarily serves northeastern Oklahoma. The OIIH, on the other hand, would try to serve the entire state, according to Executive Director lola Hayden, a Comanche: "We want to provide a place for tribes to show the artifacts that they receive through repatriation," she says. "But we will also have live exhibits, where people tell stories, build traditional houses, play games, and show the way they used to live."

By combining the resources of all the state's tribes, museums like these hope to attract enough visitors and funding to support themselves. "You can't have 60 museums spring up in Oklahoma and have support for all of them," the Smithsonian's Timothy Baugh says. "Museums very rarely pay for themselves, and federal funding is decreasing."

On a national level, the same approach undergirds the new National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Directed by Richard West, Jr., son of Oklahoma painter Richard West, the museum will not have regional branches as originally proposed, but will offer traveling exhibits designed by and for Native Americans. The museum's Cultural Resources Center, to be built in Suitland, Maryland, will have a computer system that will allow Indians nationwide to access descriptions of their tribe's objects in the museum's collection. While some fear that a good deal of the national museum's collection will have to be repatriated, most feel it is on exactly the right track. "A lot of Indian people are putting their hopes in that museum," says Kevin Smith.

Excerpted by permission from "Life After Museums" by Burkhard Bilger, Oklahoma Today, May-June 1993.