Museum Fellow Immersed in Native Artifacts Case

July 15, 2015

Native American fellow Alexandra Nahwegahbow (left), PEM Curator of Native American Art and Culture Karen Kramer and Native American fellow Ashley Tsosie-Mahieu (Photo: Allison White/PEM)

For my friends who have known me while I worked at the Arizona State Museum this year, they have heard me talk about "museum emergencies." If I were to set up a lunch date with a colleague or friend, I would make sure to be in close proximity to ASM in case a "museum emergency" arose. Often, I probably was being overly dramatic or perhaps feeling (unwarranted) self-importance. However, as with any job, there were times when I was essentially on call or just needed to be nearby in case one of my supervisors needed assistance.

Over the past few weeks at the Peabody Essex Museum, or PEM, in Salem, Massachusetts, the Native American Art and Culture Curatorial staff — as well as PEM senior administrators — underwent what I would consider a bona fide museum emergency.

For the past 75 years, PEM has been housing more than 1,100 artifacts for the Andover Newton Theological School, or ANTS, including 158 works attributed to Native American and Native Hawaiian cultures.

While ANTS has been in legal possession of this collection, it recently demanded that the artifacts be returned, removing them from PEM's protection and making them inaccessible to the Native tribal nations for whom they represent. Communication between the school and museum indicates that the school intends to auction off these artifacts to private individuals for profit.

The situation gets more complicated because it may involve the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, a federal law requiring institutions who receive federal funding to enter into a dialogue about the possible return of specific cultural items and human remains to affiliated, federally recognized American Indian tribes or Native Hawaiian organizations. ANTS may receive federal funding; if it does, it may not be in compliance with NAGPRA, as it has not yet submitted any summaries or inventories of its collection (PEM is not responsible for doing so on its behalf). If ANTS does not receive federal funding, the only issue at hand would be the sale of these items.

Because PEM is committed to treating Native American and Native Hawaiian peoples, communities and cultures equitably — in addition to obeying federal law — PEM staff, including my supervisor Karen Kramer, curator of Native American art and culture, has been diligently sending out email and snail-mail communications to more than 200 Native American tribal leaders representing approximately 120 of the 560-plus federally recognized tribal nations within the U.S.

Since many of the cultural items in the ANTS collection are not necessarily affiliated with one specific tribal nation, this was no small undertaking. We searched the national NAGPRA database for hours trying to locate all of the tribal nations who may be affiliated with particular items and who would be interested in having their ancestral belongings protected and/or repatriated (no human remains are in the collection).

After sending out notices to the tribal representatives, we have received much positive feedback. Many tribal officials who responded can claim cultural affiliation to particular items and are interested in challenging ANTS' possession and sale of their cultural items. Many of these tribal representatives have written official letters to ANTS administration and to the national NAGPRA office, requesting that the ANTS sale be promptly investigated and that the office look into whether ANTS receives federal funding.

Only time will tell the outcome of this delicate situation. It is up to national NAGPRA to make the determination whether ANTS must comply with NAGPRA. Federally recognized tribes can work to build a case that their tribal nations are affiliated with particular items and that the items are culturally significant, but ultimately national NAGPRA must declare that ANTS is subject to NAGPRA and whether the school is in compliance. 

As a Native person, it is incredibly important for me to make sure that the appropriate tribal representatives are notified of this situation. It is imperative that tribal and community leaders know that their cultural items are in danger of being exploited and misused and that they have the power to prevent the sale of any sacred item — and also the capacity to have those items returned to them.

This museum emergency occurred in the midst of our planning and preparation for PEM's major "Native Fashion Now" exhibition, which involves selecting mannequins and mounts for close to 100 artistic works, creating the interactive digital artist moodboards, and conceptualizing the design and look of the galleries. Kramer and I had to drop everything we were working on and focus on our museum emergency for several days.

Featured clothing is by Orlando Dugi, a designer in the upcoming PEM exhibition "Native Fashion Now," which will open in November 2016. (Photo: Larry Lamsa via Flikr)

If anything, this experience has taught me what it's like to roll with the punches and exude grace under pressure. Under Kramer's wing, I have begun to understand more and more the everyday stresses and rewards of being a curator at a major museum. Providing Native American students with practical museum experience is one of the primary goals of the PEM fellowship. It doesn't get any more practical than a legitimate museum emergency.

For more specific information on allegations of failure to comply with NAGPRA, visit the national NAGPRA site.

Ashley Tsosie-Mahieu, a doctoral student in the UA's American Indian Studies program, is one of four students selected as a 2015 UANews student columnist. The columnist initiative was launched in June by UANews and provides students the opportunity to share insights about the work and research they will be doing over the summer in various parts of the U.S. and abroad. It is the UA's 100% Engagement initiative in action, and the experiences will prepare the students to be real-world ready upon graduation.