Cultural Property Rights: What’s Next After NAGPRA?

Aug 15th, 1996 | By | Category: 8-2: Cultural Property Rights, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

Gilbert Little Wolf honors the remains of one of the children shot at Fort Robinson in 1878. The tribe buried a teddy bear with her. 1993 photo by John Warner

Cultural property rights is a relatively new term. It encompasses sacred and ceremonial items such as masks, medicine bundles, and ceremonial shields. It also refers to less tangible properties, such as songs, stories, and ceremonies. In 1990, Congress passed a significant law bringing cultural property rights to the nation’s attention: the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). This issue of the Tribal College Journal focuses upon two of the next steps necessary after NAGPRA to resolve the deep  differences between two cultures about research and knowledge: 1) enacting tribal restrictions on cultural research and 2) building tribal museums and tribal capacity for safeguarding cultural heritage.

I was introduced to cultural property rights and to tribal sensitivity to outside researchers many years ago in Lame Deer, Montana. I was reminded of this recently at the Native Research and Scholarship Symposium on Orcas Island, Washington, in July 1996 (see “Dear Readers” on page 3). At the symposium Jennie Seminole Parker mentioned a moratorium imposed by her tribe, the Northern Cheyenne, in 1973 on cultural research.

It so happened that in June 1974, I had accompanied a retired school teacher, Ida Ferrin, to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation as her driver. I had never visited a reservation community before. She had taught on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming and written a book of “legends,” and she wanted to research Cheyenne stories. An energetic, impulsive woman in her 70s, Ida was intensely interested in the world around her, particularly in the underdog, she told me. “Teaching Indian children is like asking them to eat poison unless you adapt to their culture,” she said. When asked at a garden club lecture why Indians don’t want to learn, she said, “How would you feel if the Soviets came in and said we’re going to study Catherine the Great for a month so you can appreciate her?” Her sentiments seemed compassionate and proper to me.

When we arrived in Lame Deer, however, we encountered the moratorium. Over the next several days, we met with various cultural liaisons, including Joe Little Coyote, who kept the door politely but firmly shut to her research. Little Coyote explained that Hyemeyohsts “Chuck” Storm had published a book, Seven Arrows, containing private cultural information, deeply offending the tribe’s traditional warrior societies. The book by Storm, a Cheyenne tribal member, became a best seller amongst non-Indians in the counter-culture, but it violated tribal protocol. Little Coyote told us that various authors had misused, sensationalized, and falsified cultural information, confusing Cheyenne young people and the public at large. Marxism and environmentalism were being passed off as Cheyenne. Missionaries were using the culture to sell their own brands of religion, Little Coyote said.

Ironically, tribal elected officials were willing to talk to me (and other journalists) about another matter: the coal leases they were fighting. So instead of collecting information about a cultural subject, Ida accompanied me on interviews about the Cheyennes’ government and its self-determination efforts.

Secrecy and survival

Many people like Ida Ferrin sincerely don’t understand why anyone would object to their efforts to learn about another culture. But as Mary Weasel Fat explains in her article about the Blood Tribe in Alberta, Canada, tribal traditions require strict protocols that even the most well meaning and informed people can unknowingly violate without guidance. Museum curators, for example, have neglected the spiritual care for objects in their collections, arousing feelings in Sacred Horn Society members similar to feelings of child neglect.

Secrecy has been critical to the survival of their traditions, Weasel Fat points out. When governments prohibited indigenous people to dance, hold potlatch ceremonies, or speak their language, the practices went underground and thus endured.    Suspicions about researchers have a long history. Over the past two centuries, collectors have accumulated baskets, quillwork, and human skulls to save remnants of what they perceived as a dying culture. Missionaries and school teachers collected tribal stories, families’ songs, and language tapes, just as my friend Ida Ferrin attempted to do.

Many decades ago the need for protection sometimes overrode the need for privacy, and some tribes entrusted their sacred objects to museums so they would be preserved. They feared the loss of their cultures due to government prohibitions, to shame, and to their own members selling communally owned ceremonial objects.

Collectors often contributed to the loss of culture as they carted away tribal heritage. I remember an Apache archeologist’s horror when he learned his grandfather had been decapitated in an American jail so the skull could be sent to the Smithsonian Institution’s skull collection. When the Smithsonian announced its search for a full series of American Indian skulls in 1863, it said the skulls were to be procured “without offense to the living,” but the Indian people had reason to believe otherwise. Before long, there seemed to be more boxes of human remains in museums than there were live Indians.

Outsiders often profited at tribal communities’ expense. The George Heye collection–now part of the National Museum of the American Indian–included 450 items that had been confiscated in 1921 at a large potlatch in the Northwest and subsequently purchased by Heye. The local Indian agent arrested 29 Indians at the potlatch and demanded that they surrender all masks, headdresses, blankets, etc. While mainstream society disdained the “pagan” rites, someone evidently valued the distasteful properties. In more recent times, researchers have gone to reservation communities with their own agendas to ask tribal members about their most private religious and sexual practices.

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