World War II and How It Impacts International Repatriation

    Adding another layer of complexity onto the issue of International Repatriation is World War II, the Nazis and the Soviets. Even though it occurred almost seventy years ago, World War II still impacts Native American communities today.

Many of us grew up hearing stories about the War from family and members of our communities who are now elderly or have since passed on. The Code Talkers of World Wars I and II from the Cherokee, Choctaw, Comanche and Navajo tribes (among others) have become respected around the world for their bravery and ingenuity during these wars. Today, we honor, respect and remember all members of our community who served and have since come home or were laid to rest. 

Unbeknownst to us, World War II initiated a practice of looting that severely impacted our tribal communities. With long and detailed lists, the Nazis swept across Europe and looted international museums and private collections. Among these collections were Native American human remains and cultural objects.

After the War, when Germany was divided into East and West, the Red Army (Soviets) looted 2.3 million objects from East Germany’s Museums. Although some of the collections were returned in 1957 and more were returned in following years, the majority of these objects are still thought to be in Russia’s possession. In 1998, a Russian law was passed naming all museum collections the property of Russia. This law makes it more difficult for individual museums in Russia to make the choice to repatriate and, instead, involves the decision of Russian government officials. 

Yet, some precedent in German law currently exists regarding the return of stolen art by the Nazis to survivors of the Holocaust and their families. However, this does not pertain to Native American collections, which does not seem like a far leap to make.   

What does exist may be helpful to efforts in international repatriation–records. Detailed records were kept by the Germans on many of their museum collections and it could be possible to set up a means of tracking missing human remains and cultural objects. 

German museums have seen the return of some of their collections through private donors, bequests, and sellers that have obtained these objects in the illicit trade market. This means that some percentage of the collections that went to Russia have entered into the black market. Since Native American collections were among those collections looted, this also means that Native American human remains and cultural objects potentially eligible for repatriation are among these. Can it get any more complicated?

So, I am closing this post with more than a few questions to think about:

Could a law in Germany be passed to repatriate Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony?

Will Russia return collections to Germany? Can repatriation occur from Russian museums?

How might we track Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony in the illicit trade market?

What will we do when these come up at auction around the world or are potentially donated or sold to museums?

Should museums adopt accession policies that reflect opposition to acquiring Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony?