Common Ground and Historic Truths

     In coming to this sacred objects workshop, I was aware of the differences in law among European countries and the United States. Within that context, I thought of American Indian tribes, their tribal governments and chthonic law (indigenous traditional law) and was attempting to work out ways to use these laws to recognize the importance of international repatriation. However, over these past two days, I was made aware of the complexities of other indigenous communities and how each’s country recognized them. Even among countries bordering the United States, there are vastly different types of recognition or non-recognition of their residential indigenous communities and indigenous rights. Generally speaking, where something might significantly strengthen international repatriation efforts in the United States, it might weaken the arguments for indigenous communities elsewhere simply because of the different ways colonial-based government systems have adopted formal recognition of their indigenous populations.

If yours has not already, my head was about to explode over this ever-expanding web of law to consider. Then, one of the visiting First Nations tribal leaders spoke to me and said that instead of getting bogged down by process and technicalities, his tribe has found that it is best to approach international repatriation in a compassionate way that finds a common ground among his tribal members and the museum professionals, a way that was his community’s traditional way of introduction and relationship-building. It involved contacting the museums and developing relationships with them, rather than imposing force, anger and law that, in the experience of this particular tribe, caused museums to immediately put up walls and fight the repatriation. If this did not work, repeated requests and meetings might finally break down the barriers. Finally, if such efforts failed, the legal approach would be tried.

This tribal leader is speaking from the context of an indigenous community in Canada where the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) does not have jurisdiction. Nevertheless, this particular approach has been tried successfully for over thirty years and is currently leading to expanding international repatriations, not only for this tribe, but opening up the possibility for others. In a world where the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act cannot reach (the international context), individual community repatriations may successfully approach international repatriation in this way. However, it does take a large amount of resources, something that not everyone is able to expend.

Perhaps consultations may be approached through the internet. Some of the institutions in the UK are currently working with indigenous communities in different parts of the world through SKYPE and similar videoconferencing units. This may be another way to approach the consultation process in a cost-effective manner when funds cannot be obtained.

The Scottish Museums identified some of their own internal problems, the first of which is that many do know exactly what is in their collections. Even when objects have been identified, they may not have a specific tribal affiliation or erroneous guesses have been made. Furthermore, oftentimes, museum priorities over the past decades have not been among their Native American collections, but rather collections that could be identified easily and researched. Thus, several Native American objects are stored away in boxes without any history. In talking through this problem on their own, museum representatives appeared to suggest that there should be a reworking of museum priorities and that they must find ways to gain the attention of museum administration, an administration that does not appear to include museum curators here in the UK.

On the other side of the Atlantic, tribes face a similar problem. We just do not know the extent of collections in the UK or in Europe. Yet, it seems that some common ground has been found in this state of confusion about international collections. Discussions emerged about creating a culturally sensitive database that would reach across the ocean and work in a cooperative and collaborative way with tribes to both identify unknown collections and collections that should be repatriated. One version of this is occurring between Cambridge and Zuni where collections information is  directly uploaded to a server that does not have public access.  Another tribe at the conference presented on its digital library. Some museums even volunteered to upload their collections!

While common ground was met, these talks also brought about several other discussions, some extremely difficult, which left the room quiet with tension. These instances of silence indicated to me the beginnings of awareness of historic truths. Whenever someone diverged from this awareness, the room went silent. When an historic truth was stated, the room went silent in a different way, most likely because we collectively had to think deeply about how it applies to our own position today, whether indigenous or museum professional.

Perhaps my interpretations are feeding idealistic whims, but I think progress is being made in international repatriation here in Scotland. I have yet to visit other countries in this trip and I have been warned that it is more difficult to find a common ground elsewhere to set this conversation of historic truth upon. However, I have hopes that it can be found and international repatriation ultimately achieved.

While this particular conference was a sample conference to gather more funding to expand international repatriation efforts, participants discussed continuing the discussion and having a larger conference next year.

(Within the next few days, I hope to be uploading museum contact information for museums in Scotland.) 

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