Manataka American Indian Council
Four years ago, the American Museum of Natural History agreed to return to the Apaches 77 objects from its collection, including headwear, feathers, bows and arrows, medicine rings and satchels containing crystals and charms.
But none of the items have gone back because of an unusual, if persistent, disagreement with representatives of the Apaches over whether the museum will officially designate the items as sacred relics that should never have been taken.
At first glance, the dispute would seem to hinge on semantics: the museum is prepared to refer to the objects, many more than a century old, as “cultural items,” while the Apaches insist that they be designated as “sacred” and “items of cultural patrimony,” legal classifications set out under federal law. The Apaches say this is hardly a case of being fussy. They say the items are imbued with their religion’s holy beings, that tribal elders attribute problems like alcoholism and unemployment on reservations to their unsettled spirits, and that the museum’s position is insulting to them and their deities.
“This is them telling us they know more about Apache culture than the Apaches,” said Vincent Randall, cultural preservation director with the Yavapai-Apache Nation in Arizona, one of four Apache tribes allied in the dispute.
The museum, home to tens of thousands of American Indian artifacts from scores of tribes, says that no insult was intended.
While the institution declined to detail how it came to its decision about the items, it said in a statement that it had closely followed the 1990 federal law that governs such repatriations, known as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
“Determining classifications under Nagpra is a complex process,” the statement said, referring to the law, “and the museum made the judgment consistent with established criteria. Upon return, the Western Apache are free to use and classify the cultural objects fully in accordance with tribal custom and traditions as they determine.”
The museum said the items the Apaches seek were “lawfully obtained by a respected anthropologist approximately 100 years ago,” which the Apaches dispute.
That scholar, Pliny Earle Goddard, was employed by the museum in 1914 to live among the Apache and study their rituals, according to copies of letters written by Mr. Goddard at the time.
The Apaches, who number 55,000 across more than a dozen distinct groups in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, have been seeking the return of items scattered in museums around the country since the early 1990s.
Under the federal law, museums are asked to classify items they intend to repatriate. “Sacred objects” are defined as those needed by tribes and their spiritual leaders to practice religion, while “objects of cultural patrimony” are defined as items that have historical importance to the tribe as a whole, as opposed to merely personal and everyday items. The law, which requires museums to cover the cost of returning items, does not include a classification known as “cultural items,” but it also leaves to museums the final decision on just how to classify the objects they are returning.
Federal officials who oversee the Repatriation Act agree that the museum is abiding by the letter of the law, though they noted that, in practice, such institutions almost always identify the items by formal category.
David Tarler, a training and enforcement official for the repatriation program, said some Indian tribes feel the use of the term “cultural patrimony” in the documentation amounts to an acknowledgment that the objects should never have been removed from tribal hands without consent. Mr. Tarler, who has monitored the Apache case since it arose in 2005, said such an admission is “an important matter of healing” for those tribes. “They want affirmation that they have always owned the objects tribally,” he said.
The repatriation act is intended to help American Indians reclaim burial and religious items and other objects of enduring significance that were taken from reservations when the tribes were suffering under resettlement, poverty and military control. It was a time, Indians and historians say, when communal spiritual items were filched by unscrupulous visitors, confiscated by soldiers, or sold and bartered by hungry tribe members who lacked such authority.
“We were hunted down and overrun, and this is all part of our historical trauma that we still carry around,” said Ramon Riley, cultural resources director for the White Mountain Apache Tribe in southwest Arizona.
Mr. Riley, who is 73, and his fellow leaders from the San Carlos, Tonto and Yavapai tribes say they are morally bound to demand the designations they deem more respectful. “These are not playthings,” he said. “We use them in ceremonies to connect us with our creator.”
The Apaches say the Natural History Museum’s stance angers and perplexes them because the museum has used the desired designations on three earlier occasions, in 1998, 1999 and 2007, when repatriating Apache ceremonial caps, lightning sticks and similar articles. They also point out that the museum has used the more formal wording in the Federal Register in 19 of the 21 American Indian repatriations accords it has made since 1998.
Tribe members visited the museum in 2005 to identify the items, sent letters to the museum and federal officials explaining why the items are singular, and went before a review committee set up under the federal law, which agreed that the items were part of the tribe’s cultural heritage.
The Apaches renewed their talks with the museum in January, soon after the Field Museum in Chicago agreed to classify 146 tribal items as sacred objects of cultural patrimony based on “a greater understanding of Apache beliefs.” In doing so, the Field altered its 2006 decision to classify 56 of those objects as cultural items only, and submitted a revised notice to the Federal Register, where such returns must be announced.
Some two dozen museums have adopted the Apaches’ position in making their returns, including the Denver Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the state museums of Arizona and New Mexico.
The Apaches, though, also have a dispute with the Smithsonian Institution, which is not governed by the 1990 Repatriation Act, over its refusal to return six objects that the tribe deems both sacred and patrimonial.
Mr. Randall said the social ills plaguing his tribe compel the Apaches to remain at loggerheads with the natural history museum in New York.
“If we disrespect the holy people, we suffer terrible consequences,” he said.
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