About Franca di Valerio

Franca Di Valerio is an Italian museum consultant based in New York City, whose areas of expertise are museology, history of collecting, and repatriation (NAGPRA and international). She earned her M.A. in Humanities summa cum laude from the University of Bologna (Italy), and before moving to New York City she was a curatorial researcher with the Institute for Artistic, Cultural and Environmental Heritage-- the agency of the Emilia-Romagna Regional Government in charge of overseeing management and preservation of collections in public museums, libraries, and historical archives in that Region. In the United States she has been working as Curatorial Advisor for the National Museum of the American Indian-Smithsonian Institution, and as researcher and writer for the Rubin Museum of Art's educational web site Explore Art.

Returning archeological artifacts to local communities: the example of the Morgantina Aphrodite

Aidone is a tranquil, rural town in central Sicily (Italy) that recently has become subject of the attention of international news, having checkmated – so to say – two of the most famous and powerful cultural institution in the world, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the unscrupulous collecting practice for which the obsession with “owning” an unique artifact overshadows due legal end ethical questions about provenance before the acquisition.

Aidone and its Archaeological Museum are now home of the so much disputed Morgantina Silver Trove, 16 Hellenistic silver-gilt items returned by the MET in 2010, and the Morgantina Aphrodite, the statue repatriated by the Getty in March 2011, both illegally excavated and exported from the ancient Greek site of Morgantina, the nearby archaeological centre, in the 1980’s. The Museum exhibits re-contextualize the artifacts according to the site’s history, as retraced by the various field excavations (Princeton University, University of Illinois, University of Virginia, along with the Italian Ministry of Culture) involved in researching and studying this ancient Greek colony.

The restitution of two important and significant artifacts such as the silver trove and the Aphrodite statue is crucially far-reaching, both as reaffirmation of the right to one own cultural patrimony, and as opportunity to use the cultural heritage for helping and improving the economy of local disadvantaged communities through sustainable cultural tourism. The network formed by the Aidone’s Archaeological Museum, with its growing collections, the Morgantina’s Archeological site, and the Villa del Casale - a Roman villa in the near town of Piazza Armerina, which contains the richest, largest and most complex collection of Roman mosaics in the world, and it’s one of 44 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Italy – can be an example of how to preserve and convey historical and cultural values of a specific heritage site in accurate and engaging ways, at the same time integrating its economic opportunities to the area where it is located, and in doing so sustaining and improving the local quality of life.

The advocates of the “universal” museum approach, a museum that contains the “whole world under one roof and preserves beautiful object, otherwise condemned to dispersion and destruction in their place of origin – a rather partial, Western idea than a “universal” one – dispute the ability of communities to protect and present their cultural patrimony in their own territory: the return of the Morgantina’s artifacts proves them wrong.

Photo: The Aphrodite at the Aidone Archaeological Museum (© la Repubblica-Palermo 2011)

The importance of documenting cultural heritage

In 1957 the British archaeologist John S.V. Bradford – a pioneer in the use of aerial photography for the documentation of archaeological landscape – published the map of the impressive walls surrounding the ancient city of Arpi, the most important centre of the pre-Roman Daunian culture flourished in the Italian region of Apulia between VIII and IV centuries B.C. At that time the archaeological site, including the necropolis, was still unexcavated, but the Daunian material culture was already internationally known, and highly demanded, for its striking pottery with geometric patterning and crude depiction of humans, plants, and birds. When many years later the local office of the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage started some field excavation in Arpi, the savage looting of the site started as well.

The looting, and the intentional destruction of archaeological artifacts considered “non-marketable” continued for years, paralleling the growing demand for any Apulian artifacts, without exception, by the international antiquities market, both legal and illegal: it has been calculated that during the last twenty years about 200.000archaeological artifacts have been looted from the area surrounding the ancient site of Arpi.

Infamous is the case of the vandalization of the Tomb of Medusa, probably one of the most remarkable underground burial chamber, first cleaned out of the funerary objects, and then excavated with a digger that knocked down the columns decorating the entrance, in order to remove the capitals and tympanum (gable) with the relief of Medusa’s head.

Luckily, the looters were stopped by the police, and so the artifacts recovered and transferred in a museum. After such an event, the archaeologists immediately started a systematic exploration and documentation of the site, in order to gather as much information as possible from what had survived of the site’s mutilated original context.

Documenting cultural objects, and especially archaeological artifact, means gathering and recording all pertinent data and information, both in written and visual forms, accumulated during the examination and treatment of a cultural property. Documentation enables us to physically preserve a cultural object, and more importantly enables us to understand and preserve the history, and so the memory, of the cultural environment, the context, that produced and used that object, especially when the object, for whatever reasons, becomes no longer physically available. Also, the information acquired can be presented to the general public in order to promote understanding and appreciation for the ancient culture to which the artifacts belong.

As the international news from Egypt remind us these very days, we live in a contemporary world where the cultural heritage (whether a museum artifact, a monument, an archaeological site, or a cultural landscape) is more than ever threatened by an array of dangers mostly due, apart from natural disasters, to human negligence and insanity, a systematic documentation represents a crucial aspect of its understanding, protection and preservation on a global scale.

Photo: The entrance of the looted “Medusa’s Tomb” in the ancient Daunian site of Arpi (Apulia Region, Italy) ©Associazione ONLUS MeteoNetwork

The right to rest in peace: Native American human remains and NAGPRA final rule

After 20 years since its passage as federal law on November 16, 1990 the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is still capable of sparking off controversies and fiery debates among American Indians, cultural institutions, and academics.

December 12th 2010, with a very much trite titles when it comes to Native American repatriation issues, “Bones of Contention, the New York Times published in its Opinion Page a contribution by Robert L. Kelly, professor of anthropology with the University of Wyoming who alarmingly warned that the final rule enacted by the U.S. Department of Interior on March 15, 2010 regarding the disposition of Native American culturally unidentifiable human remains will “destroy a crucial source of knowledge about North American history and halt a dialogue between scientists and Indian tribes that has been harmonious and enlightening”.

NAGPRA defines two typologies of Native American human remains: culturally affiliated and culturally unidentifiable. Culturally affiliated human remains are those who can be linked, historically or prehistorically, to a present day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization through a relationship of shared group identity. These remains are repatriated to the lineal descendant or tribe, and then, usually, laid to rest finally in peace.

Culturally unidentifiable human remains are those for whom, although determined to be Native American, no lineal descendant or culturally affiliated present-day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization can, for different reasons, be determined.

In order to address the rights of Native Americans to – and out of respect for – those ancestral remains, and in agreement with the intent of NAGPRA, the DOI published on October 2007 a proposed rule for the disposition of culturally unidentifiable human remains, inviting public comments that actually arrived from a number of Indian tribes and organizations, museums, cultural and scientific organizations, federal entities, even the general public.

Thus, after many years of consultation, and three years of discussions and revisions, the enacted final rule states the following: if there is no request from an Indian tribe regarding culturally unidentifiable human remains, a museum or federal agency must initiate consultation with officials and traditional religious leaders of all Indian tribes from whose tribal land or aboriginal land the human remains were removed. The consultation may include Indian groups that are not-federally recognized, but are known to have a shared group identity with the human remains at issue, at discretion of the museum or federal agency.

The repatriation of culturally unidentifiable human remains must follow these priorities: 1. Indian tribes from whose tribal land, at the time of excavation, the remains were removed; 2. Indian tribe or tribes aboriginal to the area from which the remains were removed; 3. Other Indian tribe who accept to take care of the disposition of the remains; 4. not-federally recognized tribe. Finally, if none of the above cases happens, the museum or federal agency may reinter the human remains according to State or other law. Whatever the final disposition, the museum or federal agency must prove that all Indian tribes involved in the consultation have agreed with the final disposition.

The notion of cultural affiliation, as intended and applied within NAGPRA boundaries and scopes, although still embedding the baggage of colonial history and population classification, acknowledges American Indian past and shared collective memory/memories as “history”, making them equal, for example, to archaeological evidence, considered just “one of several type of relevant information or expert opinion that must be considered in determining whether cultural affiliation can be established”. Once again, the battle revolves around ownership and interpretation of other people’s cultural heritage, and not so often museum curators, archaeologists, anthropologists are willing to acknowledge that members of the American Indian communities are also “experts”, not merely informants, and have the right to claim their own cultural patrimony, not to mention the remains of their ancestors who are, let be clear, not an archaeological resource, property of the United States, as someone has suggested. As Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science has written in response to Robert Kelly’s affirmations: “The carefully wrought dialogue that has developed over the last two decades is not threatened by the new regulations. Rather, it is threatened by those who continue to see repatriation as the end of archaeology, instead of a new beginning of collaborative stewardship of Native American history.”

Photo: Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe members carrying the remains of tribal ancestors into the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe’s Nibokaan Ancestral Cemetery, November 2010 ©Central Michigan University

Preserving architectural heritage: A review of "Time Honored. A Global View of Architectural Conservation"

What equates such different and distant places as the New York State Pavilion in Queens (New York City), the Bamyan site in Afghanistan, the Fenestrelle Fortress in the Italian Alps?

The elliptical canopy of the New York State Pavilion with its oversized, mosaic-made map of the state of New York is one of the few remaining structures from the historical event of 1964-1965 World’s Fair. The hollow cliff side in the Bamyan valley sadly reminds us of the two ancient monumental statues of Buddha Vairocana and Buddha Sakyamuni, once peacefully overlooking the site, mercilessly dynamited and destroyed in 2001. And the fortress of Fenestrelle, also called the “Great Wall of the Alps,” with its complex architectural layout, is one of the largest fortified structures remaining in Europe from the Eighteenth century, and as such an important crossroad for all of European history and identity.

The shared feature of these historical sites, these monuments, is that they are significant examples of the international architectural heritage the humankind risks to lose forever, and as such are all included in the World Monuments Fund’s Watch Program, the watch listing that every two years the Fund – a private organization based in New York City, and dedicated to saving the world’s most treasured places – releases in order to promote public awareness, and encourage solutions, about threatened cultural heritage worldwide.

The reasons why it is so important that we care for and preserve not only the natural environment and landscape, but also the historical built environment and landscape, that is the result of the interaction between human societies and natural environment over the centuries, are clearly explained by John H. Stubbs in the volume Time Honored: A Global View of Architectural Conservation. The author, Associate Professor of Historic preservation at the Columbia University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, has also served, among other assignments, as Field Director for the World Monument Fund itself, and so his expertise in and knowledge of the “state of the art” regarding the international architectural preservation issues, their historical and epistemological context, have been acquired through decades of field work around the world.

Even if the book is essentially a comprehensive survey of theory, practice and framework of the architectural heritage conservation through the world – and so an indispensable tool for those directly involved in the field, like professional preservationists or historical conservation students – still its clear explanation of ideas and topics makes it an interesting and useful reading to whoever has interest in the cultural heritage conservation in general.

The first, basic question the volume answers is what the “objects,” the “artifacts” of the architectural preservation, are: they are not only single buildings like the Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the Uffizi Palace in Florence, or the Potala Palace in Tibet, but also structures like the Roman Aqueduct of Pont du Gard in France, or the Great Wall in China, and urban historic centers like those of Lima (Perú), Venice (Italy), or Cienfuegos (Cuba). These are clear examples of our universally shared architectural heritage, testimonials of a history and of a cultural identity common to us all; but deciding and choosing what to conserve today for the future generations is the crucial, and most difficult, task because the concept of history and of cultural identity, of which the whole cultural patrimony is an embodiment, change in time according to societal changes. There are no universal, absolute criteria to be followed, only guidelines and standards debated and renegotiated over time. The author lists and briefly analyzes the standards, or “types of value or significance,” most commonly used to classify the architectural heritage and to emphasize the importance of its preservation: universal, associative (historic and commemorative), aesthetic, exemplary and instructive. Even curiosity, in the sense of desire to know about ancient practices, is among the features that conventionally identify the architectural artifact to be preserved.

The reason why the protection and preservation of this specific aspect of the world’s cultural heritage should be a commonly shared concern is that the architectural patrimony contains a rooted history of cultural ideas and styles, and it witnesses and ensures the historical continuity of the environment in which we live, in a word our sense of belonging to a place, not only physically, but also culturally. Stubbs takes into account the multiple threats challenging the built environment, from the inevitable damaging action of passing time on structures and materials, of the weather conditions and/or natural disasters, to man-caused destructive actions resulting from social and economic changes, such as building or updating economic infrastructure, increased tourist flow, pollution, and so forth, without forgetting about war and armed conflicts. Similarly, he describes the various possible actions of intervention available to the architectural conservationist, keeping in mind that each single intervention is always a complex operation – not only from a technical and scientific point of view, but also from a cultural one – requiring extreme attention and careful consideration, and that the ultimate rationale should always be respecting the structural integrity and the surviving historic architectural fabric.

The penultimate chapter of the volume provides factual examples of architectural conservation practice, along with challenges and solutions, carried out in different areas of the world. Starting from Europe, where the awareness about the preservation of built environment has its historical and philosophical roots, and where nevertheless many new challenges have arisen nowadays (tourism pressure, uncontrolled development, pollution, etc.), the tour continues following geographical divisions (North Africa and Western Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South Asia, East and Southeast Asia, Austro-Pacific Region, North America, Latin American and the Caribbean, even unusual places like the Polar Regions) starting with localities where the heritage protection has consolidated tradition and practice, and moving on to areas where the concern is new or just forming. Pictures elucidate issues to be faced and positive actions undertaken for each region of the world examined: about the Polar Regions, for instance, in addition to the major ecological concerns, the reader learns that structures built by explorers, like the hut erected by British Robert Falcon Scott in 1911 on Ross Island in Antarctica during the so-called Terra Nova Expedition (1910-1913), or sites related to the Arctic Native cultures are also at risk, and not only because of the extreme weather conditions. But at the same time the reader discovers that conservation projects are underway, or already completed, in order to save these unique examples of cultural heritage.

Finally, the four appendices concluding the volume offer exhaustive indices about terminology used, organizations and resources operating in the international architectural conservation field, international and regional conventions, charters and recommendations, and annotated bibliography indispensable to whoever, professional or amateur, wants to pursue the understanding of this essential element of our world’s cultural patrimony.

Remarkable objects, multiple histories: The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the protection of American Indian cultural patrimony

The Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the law that regulates protection and restitution of American Indian cultural patrimony in the U.S.A., is about to turn its twentieth year since its enactment in 1990. Beyond its legal requirements, NAGPRA has deeply influenced, and in many cases irreversibly changed, assumptions about cultural property, cultural identity, ownership, artifact, interpretation, and representation. Museology, anthropology, archaeology are the disciplines more directly involved in facing such changes and resulting issues.

The article briefly outlines the historical context of collecting American Indian artifacts, including human remains, and how nowadays NAGPRA provisions regulate acquisition and protection of Native American cultural patrimony.

On a sunny afternoon of May 1988 an unusual, small procession composed of Zuni Indians religious leaders and tribal councilmen walked through the streets of Midtown Manhattan. It was, in the words of a witness, “A minuscule homecoming parade that took place under the eyes of hundreds of New Yorkers sitting in traffic, striding to a business lunch, or looking down from the Empire State Building at a city that moves so quickly it cannot see its minor miracle.” (Firestone 1988).

The “miracle” happening that day was the Zuni delegation taking back home to the Zuni Indian Reservation (New Mexico), a sacred, highly revered wooden figure called Ahayu:da, or war twin god, that had been illegally removed from its original shrine, and later landed up in the collection of the artist Andy Warhol (1928- 1987):

“Known popularly as “war gods” the Ahayu:da are twin gods who serve primarily as protectors of the Zuni people[…]. Each year in ceremonies at the winter solstice the leaders of the Deer clan create an image of the elder brother, Uyuyewi, in sculptural form, while the leaders of the Bear clan create an image of the younger brother, Ma’a’sewi. These images, carved from cylindrical pieces of cottonwood or pine about 50 to 78 cm long, feature a stylized face, torso, and hands. Bundles of prayer sticks and other offerings are attached around its base […]. The images of Ahayu:da are entrusted to the bow priests (also called war chiefs), who place them at one of a number of shrines on the mesas surrounding Zuni Pueblo. The new Ahayu:da replaces an existing one that is now placed on a pile of “retired” images to remain an integral part of the shrine, gradually disintegrating the returning to the earth […]. Once the Ahayu:da are installed at a shrine, no one has the authority to remove them. Zuni religious leaders believe that to do so unleashes their great powers, resulting in a wanton destruction and mayhem.” Merrill, Ladd, Ferguson 1993

While in the Zuni cultural system the Ahayu:da possess such a crucial significance that even their replicas and images are considered sacred, in the Western view they have been usually perceived as “exotic”, “primitive” objects, extremely fascinating especially among artists. Paul Klee’s Mask of Fear, painted in 1932 and now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was probably inspired by the very Zuni war god that the Berlin Museum of Ethnology, in Germany, still includes among the Zuni regalia and sacred objects “collected” by the American ethnographer Frank Hamilton Cushing (1857- 1900) for this Institution at the end of the 19th century.

When in 1988, a year after Andy Warhol’s death, his art collection was put  up for auction by Sotheby’s in New York City, William L. Merrill, a young anthropologist already involved with the repatriation of Zuni religious items from the Smithsonian (currently he heads the Ethnology division at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History), alerted the Zunis about the presence of the war god in the upcoming New York auction. With the help and legal intervention of the U.S. Department of Justice, the Zuni requested the restitution of the war god, and after the positive response of the Andy Warhol Foundation, and despite some resistance from Sotheby’s – already involved in a similar situation a decade before- the case was settled with the removal of the sacred figure from the auction and the consequential restitution to the Zuni people.

Today, after years of a persistent campaign of claims and negotiations with various counterparties, public and private as well, and with the help of a new federal law enacted in 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), many of the stolen Ahayu:da have been recovered and relocated in their shrines to complete the intended cycle of their physical existence, and so finally disintegrating and returning to the Earth.

Native America collected

The systematic pillage of American Indian cultural patrimony dates back to the very inception of the “scientific exploration” of the American Southwest in the late Nineteenth century, and so of the American archaeology tout court:

“American Indians were perceived as “specimen” to be empirically investigated and objectively understood. […] Anthropologists studied American Indian by digging up their graves and exhibiting Indian people in “ethnographic zoos” […] Native people became “living fossils”, sometimes tucked away int he museums of America; when these “museum Indians” died, their bodies were sometimes boiled, the bones numbered and store away as part of America’s greater heritage.” (David Hurst Thomas 2008)

The abundance of well-preserved sites and artifacts in the very places where contemporary Indians were still living, and the widespread ideological framework that Indian people were soon to “vanish”, fostered the organization of the expeditions to collect and document as much as possible about them. On October 12, 1879, James Stevenson (1840- 1888), leading with his wife Matilda Coxe Stevenson (1849- 1915) the first  Smithsonian Institution expedition to the Rio Grande Pueblos and Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico, and the Hopi villages in Northeastern Arizona, wrote to John Wesley Powell, director of the Bureau of Ethnology, just established within the Smithsonian:

“Our success has been beyond our expectations. I brought from Zuni yesterday two large wagon loads- loaded up to the bows- comprising the most curious and choice specimen ever gathered from this country, and I send the wagon back early in the morning for another large load.” (Miller 2007)

The United States Southwestern territory was a unique open field for studies and research, not to mention for collecting: “For the Southwest, which is probably the most heavily collected region of Native America, it [collecting] has never really stopped since the Smithsonian started in 1879.” (Jacknis 2008)

The fascination exerted by such a cultural context- real and mythical at the same time- also attracted foreign explorers: Swedish Gustaf Nordenski öld (1832-1901), universally remembered for being the first to study the cliff dwelling of Mesa Verde in Colorado, while working there in 1891 for the Swedish Museum of Natural History, amassed hundreds of artifacts which he shipped back to Sweden. Among those “artifacts”, as usual, there were human remains (skulls, skeletons, bones) today still held by the Museum of Culture in Helsinki (Finland).

Avidly amassing American Indian objects was not a scholar’s prerogative solely. All over the Country amateurs and collectors, for the most various reasons and purposes, entered into the arena as well, in many cases crossing inexorably their paths with those of the scholars already working in the field: the example of George Gustav Heye (1874- 1957) and “his” Museum of the American Indian is the most obvious, nonetheless the most emblematic. Established in New York in 1916 along with the Heye Foundation, the Museum held a huge, unparalleled collection- ranging with no solution of continuity form Alaska to Tierra del Fuego- that George Gustav Heye built the expertise of professional anthropologists and archaeologists like Franz Boas (1858- 1942), who supervised the acquisition of major collections from Northwest Coast Indians, andGeorge H. Pepper (1873- 1924) with whom, in 1914, Heye personally excavated a Munsee Indian cemetery in New Jersey, removing from the burials artifacts and human remains, equally regarded as “American antiquities”.

But the example of the Heye Museum is also paradigmatic for another reason, a reason- we like to think- with an inkling of an act of nemesis: after Heye’s death in 1957 the Museum and the Foundation experienced a long period of cultural limbo associated with financial difficulties. After years of unsuccessful attempts to ensure its fate and survival finally in 1989 the ownership was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution. Congress enacted a federal law, the National Museum of the American Indian Act (Public Law 101-185) that at the same time, significantly, established a “living memorial to Native Americans and their traditions”, i.e. a “national museum devoted exclusively to the history and art of cultures indigenous to the Americas” within the Smithsonian museum’s system; and policies and guidelines for the return, repatriation, of human remains and associated funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony in the Smithsonian collections to pertaining Indian tribes. The following year, on November 16, 1990, a new federal law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (Public Law 101-601) extended those policies and guidelines to all museums and agencies possessing American Indian collections and receiving federal funds. Also, the law enacted rules for conducting archaeological excavations, and rules for inadvertent discoveries, both on federal and tribal lands. Finally, the law prohibits the illegal trafficking Native American human remains and cultural items.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)

When the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act became national law almost twenty years ago, many museum professionals with different backgrounds (archaeologists, anthropologists, art curators) alarmingly foreshadowed an apocalyptic scenario, with artifacts fleeing from the display cases, leaving behind empty spaces. Of course, such a thing has never happened, and will never happen.

What the law, in brief, mandates is that all institutions (Federal agencies, local agencies, museums, historical societies, university collections) receiving federal fund (through grants, loans, contracts) identify Native American items (including human remains) in their collections, writing out inventories, i.e. item by item lists, and/or summaries, that is detailed descriptions about kind of objects and number included in the collection, means and dates of acquisition, geographical and cultural affiliation (meaning the shared collective identity that can be traced back from a present day Indian tribe to an identifiable earlier group) that must be completed in consultation with appropriate tribal government officials and traditional religious leader. Where cultural and geographical affiliations of human remains are unknown or uncertain, a separate inventory must be compiled. Once the cultural affiliation has been determined, museums and federal agencies must send notice to lineal descendants (individuals tracing ancestry directly and without interruption to known Native American individuals whose remains, funerary objects, or sacred objects are covered by the law) or affiliated tribes who might claim the repatriation. After a museum or federal agency receives, reviews, and agrees on the repatriation request, procedures for the actual restitution initiate. Finally, notice of inventory/summary completion, and notice of intent to repatriate must be sent to the National Park ServiceNAGPRA National Program, which provides assistance and guidance for the implementation of the law in behalf of the U.S. Department of the Interior, in order to be published in the Federal Register, the official, juridical daily publication of the Office of the Federal RegisterNational Archives and Records Administration (NARA). In addition to human remains, the cultural items covered by NAGPRA are:

a) Funerary objects: Objects intentionally placed, as part of the burial rite or ceremony, with the human remains of an individual either at the time of his/her death or later. For the purposes of the law, funerary objects are defined “associated” when the human remains with which they were found are in the possession of the museum as well, and as “unassociated” when otherwise. For instance, associated funerary objects are the brass or copper bracelets, fragments of ceramic vessels, plum pits, steatite shard sample of hematite, string of disc-like and tubular shell beads, worked bone square, unearthed with human remains of 17 individual by the New York State Museum archaeologists in 1911 from an early historic Seneca village associated with two burial sites. After having identified the geographical and cultural affiliation of human remains and objects in consultation with representatives of the Seneca Nation of Indians, in September 2008 the Museum initiated the procedure for the repatriation of both cultural items to the Seneca Nation of Indians.

Unassociated funerary objects are the shaman headdress, bone necklace, amulets, and an ivory burial figure that the Western reserve historical Society of Cleveland, Ohio, in consultation with the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Tribes, has concluded would have been buried with a shaman at the time of death or later as part of the death rite or ceremony, and so they have been removed from a specific burial site of an Native American individual. Therefore, even if the Western Reserve Historical Society has no possession of the physical remains of the shaman, those objects are nevertheless funerary objects, and so to be repatriated to the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes.

b) Sacred objects: Specific ceremonial objects needed by traditional Native American religious leaders for performing duties and practices related to Native American ceremonial or religious traditions for the benefit of present day adherents. A suitable example are prayer sticks, like those removed in 1952 from a cave in Nevada known as “Prayer Cave”, sacred to the present-day Northern Paiute Indians as well because regarded for having medicinal properties. The prayer sticks were donated to thePhoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of Berkeley, California. In 2008, the Museum, after consulting with representatives of the cultural affiliated tribe, the Yerington Paiute Tribe of the Yerington Colony & Campbell Ranch, Nevada – who reaffirmed the tribe’s belief that Prayer Cave and its contents are sacred, and that both are part of on-going ceremonies and beliefs – initiated the repatriation process to the Yerington Paiute Tribe.

c) Objects of cultural patrimony: Objects having ongoing historical, traditional, or cultural importance central to the Native American group or culture itself, rather than property owned by an individual Native American, and which, therefore, cannot be alienated, appropriated, or conveyed by any individual regardless of whether or not the individual is a member of the Indian tribe, and such object shall have been considered inalienable by such Native American group at the time the object was separated from such group. A clear example of this category is the wooden feast dish carved in the shape of a beaver that the American Museum of Natural History in New York City has repatriated in 2008 to the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. The Tribes reclaimed the dish in behalf of the Deisheetaan Clan (Beaver Clan) of Angoon, the village in Southwest Alaska shelled and destroyed in 1882 by the U.S. Navy. The fact that the dish is one of only a few items surviving that event corroborates its historical and cultural importance to the Tribes shared identity awareness.

The repatriation process is not always as simple and consequential as in the examples quoted above, where the museums involved possessed precise historical records about the circumstances of the acquisition. In frequent cases, other factors can determine different outcomes: first of all, federal agencies and museums are not required to repatriate cultural items for which no cultural affiliation to a present-day Indian tribe has been established, at least until the issue has been clarified through further researches and consultations, and resolutions or agreements have been reached among the involved tribes and/or museums.

Also, sometimes Indian Tribes want human remains or funerary objects to stay in the museums because of their traditional view about dead, as in the case of the Navajo People, who believe that there is a potential for harm in dealing, or even discussing it, therefore the current repatriation policy of the Navajo Nationprevents them from actually doing reburials on the Navajo Reservation, and defers to others handling the matter. Or, as in the case of human remains and funerary objects from the Sand Creek Massacre site repatriated by the National Museum of the American History to the Cheyenne of Oklahoma:

“Cheyenne representatives and elders eventually made museum staff aware of their decision to leave a particular collection of funerary objects at the museum for the educational benefit of Cheyenne tribal members and on-Cheyenne researchers who might want to conduct research on these historic materials in the future.” (Killion 2008)

Another reason for delaying the actual return is the growing concern about objects that, while stored in museums, have been treated with chemical substances, like arsenic or mercury, in order to preserve them, and so they can bear toxic residuals. Since the objects might be used in public ceremonies, they represent a possible health threat to the tribal community, and to the tribal designated handlers of those artifacts: sometimes the tribe wants the objects tested for poison before being repatriated, and that often requires long and expensive procedures slowing the effective return to the Tribe.

And yet, despite its legal requirements, its convolutions and, sometimes, contradictions, it is undeniable that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Acts has, helped, volens ornolens, to substantially redefine the relationship between Native People and museums, where Native communities can exercise authority and control of knowledge as equal partners with scholars and museum professionals, and where their  traditional knowledge is no more considered pure mythology or superstition, but a crucial tool to interpret and  understand the data collected by researchers:

“Repatriation is about fundamentally about sharing, about a bridging of perspectives and practice – between anthropologists and museum professionals and descendant communities and the public – that has the potential to broaden our awareness and understand of human diversity and human experiences.” (Loring 2008)

And from an American Indian perspective:

“NAGPRA and cooperative curators have allowed us to rethink our relationship with our ancestors, to reaffirm our shared values, to learn more about the archaeological record, and basically to ask ourselves: What are the most important spiritual traditions that we need to keep alive?” (Hill Sr. 2006)

The Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and illicit trafficking

Finally, another crucial issue NAGPRA deals with is the illegal trafficking in American Indian cultural patrimony and human remains. The law prohibits selling, purchasing, using for profit, or transporting for sale or profit human remains of a Native American, and/or Native American cultural items obtained without the voluntary consent of an individual or group that had authority of alienation on such objects. Specifically about human remains and associated funerary objects the meaning is obtained without full knowledge and consent of the next of kin or the official governing body of the appropriate culturally affiliated Indian tribe. Penalties for breaking these provisions include fines of up to $100,000 and/or one year of imprisonment, and in case of subsequent violation five years.

One of the first judicial cases in which NAGPRA was applied is the 1996 trial against Richard Corrow a dealer in Native American Art based in Scottsdale, Arizona, whose hearing and conviction have already become a typical case-law. In brief, Corrow was charged and sentenced for trafficking in Native American cultural items having tried to sell twenty-two Navajo ceremonial masks, or Yei B’Chei (considered among the most sacred items of Navajo religious practice) to an undercover federal agent. In his defense and then in appealing the sentence, Corrow – supported by theAntique Tribal Art Dealers Association challenged the constitutionality of NAGPRA critical definition of “cultural patrimony” by reason of its vagueness which, according to his argument, misleads the unwary because of its multiple meanings. The prosecution proved the accuracy of the definition and its applicability to the Navajo ceremonial masks; therefore Corrow was sentenced to two concurrent five-year probationary terms and one hundred hours of community service. In a similar case, in 1998 the owner of a well-known shop of natural history collectibles in New York City was convicted for selling American Indian human remains of Seminole and Peoria ancestry in violation of NAGPRA, and sentenced to one year imprisonment, and pay for the expenses of sending the human remains back to their tribes for reburial.

These instances, in addition to their significance as legal precedent, testify exhaustively about the strong demand for these artifacts both in the legal and illicit market, where the borderline in between is often very faint. Current auction prices start  at 14,000 dollars for a 19th century Hopi Kachina doll; 4,500 for a small Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloan) black-on-white earthen jar; 30,000 for  a mid-19 th century Chilkat ceremonial dance blanket; 20,000 for a prehistoric zoomorphic dagger, and so forth. On the other hand, in the illegal market prices can reach million of dollars, as in the case of the eagle-feathered headdress worn by Apache spiritual leaderGoyathlay (Geronimo, c. 1829-1909) that was put on sale in 1999 for 1.2 million dollars (recovered by an undercover federal agent). And we must not forget the constant, less sensational, nevertheless profoundly destructive activity of pothunters and looters, who also supply the demand of minor collectors for pottery, potsherds, stone knives, beads, bone tools, arrow points: “Many looters do not limit themselves to small tools that can be carried in a backpack but will use backhoes and other heavy equipment to completely devastate an area. The looters remove all the valuable and sellable items out of the ground and then simply bulldoze over the entire area. Once this type of destruction has happened, it is impossible to ever know the historical and archaeological context of the site, and that information is lost for ever”. This testimony given by John Fryar, enrolled member of the Pueblo of Acoma, New Mexico, and criminal investigator for the U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affaires (BIA), before the U.S. Sentencing Commission on February 26, 2002 confirms how irreparable the loss of information about the context of an artifact is, and how it steals the right to knowledge from all of us.

Since its passage on November 16, 1990 the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, beyond its legal requirements, has profoundly influenced, and in many cases radically changed, the way museums acquire, preserve, interpret and display Native People’s cultural heritage, not only in a specific country, the United States of America, but all over the world. Key-concepts like consultation and collaboration, clearly stated in the provisions of the law, have become internationally shared practices involving Native communities, scholars, and museum professionals together. All that has contributed to challenge the no more univocal definition of cultural patrimony and cultural identity, consequently their mutual relationship in a world scenario that constantly renegotiate their meanings and boundaries.


In 1987 acclaimed Luiseño artist James Luna presented his seminal work The Artifact Piece at the San Diego Museum of Man’s Hallof Kumeyaay Indians. Lying motionless for hours on a bed of sand inside a glass display case, surrounded by personal items and ceremonial objects from the Luiseño reservation, arranged and labeled as in the other exhibits of arrowheads or pottery around him, Luna’s purpose was to challenge the way museums represent and display Native people and cultural objects. Later, he said that what kept him going was the awareness that at the end of those hours, he could get up and leave; the Kumeyaay Indians represented in the objects around him could not. He was wrong.


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