Tribes are the Experts: Intertribal Collaboration and Leverage

Several challenges present themselves when it comes to international repatriation, both for tribes and for museums. These include finding resources for funding, the amount of time repatriations take, and the process of consultations and negotiations. However, the most immediate problem in Scotland is that many of the museums here do not have tribal affiliations attached to their collections.

          Provenances, or histories of the collections, are often too minimal to identify the exact location where human remains and cultural objects were collected and a general region has been identified or no provenance exists whatsoever. Intense research on the part of international museums must be done to fully understand where these explorers, anthropologists and collectors of “curiosities” were when they acquired (or grave-robbed) many of the collections that were later donated to museums. Furthermore, several museums throughout the years have directed their funding for research into more localized (or national) studies or research that they knew could obtain results easily. Since much time has passed, the original collectors and the curators present when the collection was given to the museum or acquired from some other museum or university are no longer around. Research into old records, diaries and other documents must be done and many of these museums do not have the staff, nor the funding to do it.

          So, where does this leave us? An ocean away and in varying financial circumstances, tribes are the experts of their own cultures and this can become substantial leverage in the international repatriation negotiation process. Yet, many tribes have been removed to different areas and their tribal lands reduced significantly. Furthermore, regional identifications of these collections may be according to old anthropological terms that have divided tribes into such categories as Eastern Woodlands, Northwest, Plains tribes, and so forth.  

          Ultimately, this might mean that tribes in the United States and, perhaps, Canada and Mexico may have to collaborate to repatriate internationally. While international museums cannot hide behind this particular excuse for historically not maintaining good provenances for these collections forever, there are steps we can take to be proactive in this process and ready when negotiations take place.

1. Gather historic information about your tribe, which includes: gathering documentation about treaties, movement of your people, and recording the changes in your clothing, art forms, and family designs; interviewing the elders (elderly); and deciding what tribal information should be disclosed and what should not be disclosed.  

2. Begin to form collaborative efforts with surrounding tribes for international repatriation. More than likely, an international repatriation will eventually involve the need for collaboration among tribes that lived in the same area historically.

3. Where available, investigate the international collections that are already present online. (I will attempt to gather these virtual collections in one place on this blog, but if you are aware of additional places that you would like to share, please post them or let me know.)

          The cultural exchange of knowledge that takes place in the international repatriation process is extremely valuable to museums, whether they are immediately aware of this or not. Where a legitimately held moccasin may formerly have been kept in a box in the farthest reaches of an international museum with the label “Indian shoe,” it will immediately become more valuable with a tribal identification, the name of the artist, the pattern that was used, the time period in which it was made, the history of the tribe at that time, and a present connection with the tribe today. 

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