Wounded Knee Artifacts Illustrate a Slow Process

Institutions working, slowly, to return Native American items taken more than a century ago
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jul 31, 2022 3:55 PM CDT
Decades Later, Quest for Wounded Knee Artifacts Continues
Leola One Feather of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota stands outside the Woods Memorial Library in Barre, Massachusetts. The library houses the Founders Museum, a private museum that is working to repatriate as many as 200 items believed to have been taken from Native Americans massacred by US...   (AP Photo/Philip Marcelo)

One by one, items purportedly taken from Native Americans massacred at Wounded Knee Creek emerged from the display cases where they’ve sat for more than a century in a museum in rural Massachusetts. Moccasins, necklaces, clothing, ceremonial pipes, tools, and other objects were laid out as a photographer snapped pictures. It was a key step in returning scores of items displayed at the Founders Museum in Barre to tribes in South Dakota that have sought them since the 1990s. "This is real personal," says Leola One Feather of the Oglala Sioux Tribe as she observed the process as part of a two-person tribal delegation last week. "It may be sad for them to lose these items, but it’s even sadder for us because we’ve been looking for them for so long."

Recent efforts to repatriate human remains and other culturally significant items such as those at the Founders Museum represent significant and solemn moments for tribes. But they also underscore the slow pace and the monumental task at hand. Some 870,000 Native American artifacts—including nearly 110,000 human remains—that should be returned to tribes under federal law are still in the possession of colleges, museums, and other institutions across the country, according to an AP review of data maintained by the National Park Service.

The University of California, Berkeley tops the list, followed closely by the Ohio History Connection, the state’s historical society. State museums and universities in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Alabama, Illinois, and Kansas as well as Harvard University round out the other top institutions. And that’s not even counting items held by private institutions such as the Founders Museum, which maintains it does not receive federal funds and therefore doesn’t fall under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, the 1990 law governing the return of tribal objects by institutions receiving federal money.

"They’ve had more than three decades," says Shannon O’Loughlin, chief executive of the Association on American Indian Affairs, a national group that assists tribes with repatriations. "The time for talk is over. Enough reports and studying. It’s time to repatriate." Museum officials say they’ve stepped up efforts with added funding and staff, but continue to struggle with identifying artifacts collected during archaeology's early years. They also say federal regulations governing repatriations remain time-consuming and cumbersome. (Read the full story for details on how UC Berkeley and other institutions are responding.)

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