ICT

This is the final installment of a three-part series examining the impact of new rules under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

NEW YORK CITY – Museums are scrambling.

New federal rules governing Native American remains and materials now guarantee in many cases that Indigenous communities can decide what gets shown to the public in display cases across the United States.

The approach is a jolt to a tradition-bound industry that “completely eliminates an institution's unilateral power over the collections,” said Shannon O’Loughlin, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and chief executive of the Association on American Indian Affairs.

Many institutions, like the Peabody Museum at Harvard University and the Field Museum in Chicago, have removed items or closed exhibits rather than fall afoul of the new requirement that they obtain “free, prior and informed consent” for their collections.

But one of the oldest Native American exhibits in the country at one of the oldest and most prestigious U.S. cultural institutions — the Northwest Coast Hall in New York’s American Museum of Natural History — remains open to the public without a single item changed or removed.

That’s because two years ago the museum completed a nearly $20 million overhaul of the 125-year-old exhibition celebrating the Indigenous cultures of the continent’s Northwest. The project was steered by a 10-member cohort of Native guest curators who worked in concert with museum staff to reimagine the presentation and re-evaluate everything in the collection.

Some items were repatriated to Indigenous communities. New displays were built that incorporated and celebrated contemporary voices. Video displays show modern Northwest tribal citizens bridging traditional lifeways and the modern world.

“I’m really proud of the work we did,” said David Boxley, Tsimshian Tribe, who helped curate the new Northwest Coast Hall exhibits. “It’s a real celebration of our culture.”

The re-imagining and rebuilding of the hall took five years and a lot of hard work, discussions and negotiations — just the sort of work the new federal rules require.

“We were able to reach points of agreement and common perspective that produced an exhibit that we're all very pleased with,” said Peter Whiteley, the museum’s curator of North American ethnology. “I'm very pleased with this hall and I see it as a benchmark for what we think is the optimal collaborative experience.”

Native leaders say such collaborations are only possible if underpinned — and infused — with trust and Indigenous values.

“I think that the Northwest Coast Hall turned out beautifully,” said Nika Collison, Haida. “The only way we'll know we're successful is if our people tell us we are. Our people love to go there, and I think that's the ultimate test of whether the hall is good or not for us, and the hall is good.”

Collison, the executive director of the Haida Gwaii Museum in British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii First Nation reserve, helped guide the re-imagining of the Northwest Coast Hall. But she said her nation’s relationship with the museum began decades earlier, when Haida representatives demanded the return of 48 ancestors then held in the museum’s collection.

“2002 was a very pivotal year in the history of the American Museum of Natural History,” she said. “It was the first time they repatriated cross-border and ancestral remains to a nation, and it was pivotal for us for the same reason.

“So we feel pretty good about the Northwest Coast Hall and we feel good about our relationship with the American Museum of Natural History.”

Closing the loopholes

The new rules come under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, which was passed by Congress in 1990 to counteract centuries of plundering and to protect graves and funerary items belonging to Indigenous communities.

The law also mandated the repatriation of human remains unearthed and removed by archeologists, private collectors and grave robbers.

But for more than 30 years, loopholes in the law have allowed institutions holding most of these items to sidestep compliance. In 1990, the American Museum of Natural History had about 3,200 Native American human remains in its collection. Today, 2,200 remains are in storage at the museum.

A years-long review, however, of the NAGPRA regulations and compliance by the U.S. Department of the Interior produced strict new rules that went into effect in January that put teeth into the law, placing tight deadlines for the repatriation of remains and ordering museums to consult with tribes and get permission to display items in their collections.

That stipulation — that museums must consult with tribes when creating displays about those tribes — has spurred museums into hasty action. But such discussions have always seemed like a common-sense approach to producing good museum work, said Steven Peters, Mashpee Wampanoag and the creative director of Smoke Sygnals, a museum exhibit consultancy.

“When we're getting into a new project, we put together a committee within those Indigenous communities,” Peters said. “We visit with the artists, we visit with their historians, their elders, we visit with the young, we visit with their language keepers. We allow them to shape the material that we then interpret and put into the exhibits that we create.”

That is the way to build the most complete, compelling and interesting museum exhibits, he said.

“Complying with NAGPRA is not a problem on our end,” he said.

‘New phase’

At the American Museum of Natural History, compliance with NAGPRA remains an issue.

Although the museum was able to keep open its Northwest Coast Hall, it closed down two other halls dedicated to Native Americans of the Eastern Woodlands and the Great Plains, and covered up other smaller exhibits with items whose provenance is covered under the new rules.

The museum also has its substantial remaining collection of Native American human remains stored on its New York City campus.

The museum is now preparing for consultations with tribes over some 600 objects with the experience of the work on the Northwest Coast Hall as a guide.

“We know that's the kind of thing that is essential to go into the renovation of either of those other two halls,” said Whiteley, while acknowledging that the institution is perhaps not as nimble as it could — or should — be.

“It would have been optimal to have begun a much larger process of consultation before those regulations happened,” he said.

That timeframe disconnect is not lost on the museum’s president, Sean Decatur. Appointed to his post just last April, the museum’s first African-American leader has made it a priority to tackle the elephant in the room.

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Sean Decatur, president of the American Museum of Natural History since 2023, says he is committed to changing the way the institution relates to Indigenous communities and points to the overhaul of the museum's Northwest Coast Hall as an example he'd like to replicate - in concert with tribal communities. (Photo by Stewart Huntington/ICT)

“We are at a critical point of reflection,” he said, during a February speech at the museum. “We must acknowledge painful legacies. … This change feels abrupt to some and long overdue to others.”

Decatur spoke with ICT recently from his round office in one of the turret-like structures in the museum’s vast and ornate 19th century main building overlooking New York’s Central Park. He said the institution’s Native American exhibits had, until the work done on the Northwest Coast Hall, been largely predicated on the misconception — and colonial goal — that North American Indigenous cultures, societies and lifeways were or would become extinct.

“One of our failures is that we have not explained that these are living cultures,” he said.

The new regulations are also adding impetus to the institution’s effort to address what Decatur called in an open letter to staff the “complex legacy” of the museum’s human remains collection.

In the October letter, months before the new NAGPRA rules went into effect, Decatur announced that the museum had removed 12 human remains from public displays and said the museum would not again use human remains in its exhibits. He also announced new internal repatriation protocols that place the onus for return on the institution rather than on tribes.

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An exhibit in the American Museum of Natural History sits closed off from public display in February 2024, after new rules governing the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act went into effect on Jan. 12, 2024. The new rules ensure tribes can decide which items may be shown to the public. Institutions across the country closed off exhibits as they reached out to tribes for guidance. (Photo by Stewart Huntington/ICT)

“It’s deeply important for us to do all we can to make sure that the museum is honoring the shared humanity of everyone,” Decatur wrote.

Asked in February if the museum staff had taken action under the new internal guidelines and reached out to a tribe, Decatur said they had not. Yet.

“I don't consider this at all anywhere near an end point of a process,” he said. “This is actually the beginning of an important new phase of this work.”

The redesign of the Northwest Coast Hall, he said, is “the model of … what the product should be in terms of an exhibition hall, and really what the process should be in terms of collaboration between the museum and communities.”

And indeed, it is a living collaboration. The museum recently announced the April 3 opening of a new exhibit of contemporary artwork from five Northwest Coast Indigenous artists. The display is “part of our commitment to ensuring that contemporary Native art and perspectives are always part of the Hall,” said Decatur.

‘Righting the wrongs of the past’

The Ohio History Connection’s museum in Columbus is also ahead of the curve on the new regulations.

In 2020, museum curators decided to remove several funerary and ceremonial objects from the “Indigenous Wonders of the World” gallery until they could consult with tribes that once occupied Ohio.

The exhibit showcased some of the approximately 2,000 Indigenous earthworks still existing in the state. Prior to European contact, there were more than 10,000 of the structures, according to Brad Lepper, senior archaeologist at the History Connection.

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The Ohio History Connection in Columbus possesses the largest collection of Native American remains in the United States. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)

Although much is unknown about the people who built the earthworks and their purpose, some contain human remains and some appear to have been ceremonial offerings.

After consulting with eight tribes that consider Ohio as part of their homelands, including the Shawnee and Eastern Shawnee tribes in Oklahoma, the museum recently unveiled a new exhibition, “Following in Ancient Footsteps’ as an addition to Indigenous Wonders of the World.

Curators agreed not to include any objects from burial mounds, and created an exhibit of items that likely were placed in the mounds as offerings. The new exhibit brings objects together in a way that provides more context and storytelling, Lepper said.

The tribes were not in agreement, however, so the entrance to the exhibit includes signage explaining that the items are not funerary and were selected in collaboration with tribes. No photos are allowed.

The new exhibit reflects a new level of collaboration and consultation between the museum and tribes.

“These collaborations with tribes that formerly lived in Ohio are enriching our understanding of the Native American experience,” Lepper said. “We’re working in concert with them to right the wrongs of the past.”

Museum officials are also working to review the more than 7,000 ancestral remains — the largest collection in the country. The remains are stored off-site from the museum in secured warehouses until they can be repatriated under the new NAGPRA rules.

Looking ahead

Peters, the Indigenous museum consultant, said he hopes museums across the country adopt respectful, forward-thinking approaches.

“Museums are having a difficult time right now shifting because they’re institutions that were built to hold onto things,” he told ICT. “They have whole collections departments that are built to hold on to those belongings.”

The new NAGPRA rules can be the push needed to finally give tribes a voice in how their stories are told by museums and other institutions.

“It's not their job to interpret our historical belongings,” he said. “It's their job to allow us to take those belongings back and then allow us to tell the stories that go along with it.

“In the end, it's more interesting when you allow these stories that haven't been heard, when you allow voices that have really been marginalized, been kind of pushed aside, to be heard.”

“It's all about the museums letting go.”

ICT national correspondent Mary Annette Pember contributed to this report.

Lead image: Carved items grace the Northwest Coast Hall in New York's American Museum of Natural History. The hall has remained open in 2024 despite strict new rules under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known as NAGPRA, that have forced a number of museums to close exhibits temporarily while they review procedures. (Photo by Stewart Huntington/ICT News)

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Stewart Huntington is an ICT producer/reporter based in central Colorado.