When Martin Sullivan became director of the New York Museum in the 1980s, he was surprised to learn that one of his official titles was “Keeper of the Wampum.”
He wasn’t sure what this meant until he was visited by representatives of the Iroquois Confederacy who told him that the 12 sacred wampum belts in the possession of the museum were their property. They had been using every means at their disposal to get the belts back. Now they wanted to know how Sullivan, as the new Keeper of the Wampum, was going to respond to their claim.
“After a while it became clear to me that the duty of the state was not to own, especially when the objects in question had such profound cultural importance. The state had a fiduciary responsibility. It should act as a caretaker,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan negotiated the repatriation of the wampum belts in 1989, a process that permanently changed his conception of his job.
“There was a whole way of thinking about museums that I hadn’t gotten until then. I think it has been the most extraordinary gift in our lifetimes to play some role in the healing of ancient wounds, in learning from Native Americans, and in forging relationships between Native American groups and museums.”
Sullivan gave a talk on Tuesday, May 29, titled “The First Ten Years of NAGPRA: Narratives of History, Memory, and Stewardship.” The talk was sponsored by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Sullivan is the director of Historic St. Mary’s City Commission (St. Mary’s City, Md.) and past chair of the National NAGPRA Review Committee.
The event celebrated the completion of the Museum’s inventory of its collection of Native American artifacts and human remains as required by NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act).
NAGPRA, which became federal law in 1990, requires museums to inventory and return Native American human remains, sacred and funerary objects, and objects of cultural patrimony for which the appropriate tribal relationships can be established.
During the inventory, the Peabody’s representatives consulted with 700 Native American tribes, eight Hawaiian groups, and 235 Alaskan villages and corporations. In 1999, the Peabody’s return of human remains to the Pecos Pueblo in New Mexico constituted the largest single repatriation since the law was enacted.
NAGPRA seems to be working well now, Sullivan said, but this was not always the case. When the law was first passed, there were skeptics on both sides. Native Americans viewed NAGPRA with suspicion and believed that it would soon be subverted by clever litigation.
“On the other side, some museum officials feared the law was a license to steal,” Sullivan said. “They had visions of U-Hauls being backed up to museum loading docks by Native Americans who would declare: ‘We’re going to take what we want – too bad if there’s nothing left.’”
But in fact, neither of these things happened. Instead, the museum community came gradually to understand the point of view of Native Americans who regarded NAGPRA as essentially a human rights law.
“To them it said that Native Americans should enjoy the same rights with regard to the treatment of their dead and of their sacred objects as any other people,” Sullivan said.
NAGPRA has even brought about changes in the language with which museums described their holdings. In the past, museums commonly referred to Native American bones as “osteological specimens.” Now they are simply referred to as “the dead.”
By conducting inventories of their holdings, museums have made a great deal of information available to Native American groups. Before NAGPRA, the only way Native Americans could learn the location of cultural property and human remains was by “going door-to-door” and demanding information. Now all this information has been centralized. Knowing exactly what is in their collections has benefited museums as well, Sullivan said.
Nevertheless, much remains unknowable. Sullivan estimates that two thirds of all human remains currently in museums cannot be repatriated because its identity cannot be established.
The relationship that has been forged between museums and Native Americans as a result of compliance with NAGPRA is important because museums are places of power, Sullivan said. A recent survey showed that Americans trust museums more than any other institution, including churches.
“But now it is clear that that old hegemony is gone and it won’t come back. The power is now shared. The voice of Native people is being heard,” Sullivan said.