Imagine your community has a cemetery, owned by the community, on community property, property which just so happens to be on land that is rich in natural resources. All of those from the community that have passed on have been buried in the cemetery. Now think what if the town lines were redrawn purposely so that the cemetery is no longer within the community’s property lines. Months go by, years even and in this time it comes to your attention that the neighboring community has hired loggers and developers to come in and develop the land. In the process of developing those lands the burial plots of your great-grandparents, their parents and many of those who have been buried in the sacred land have been unearthed, all of their personal possessions which were buried with them, and they themselves now rest unpeacefully in a national museum. The museum is telling the community that the remains and artifacts (personal and sacred possessions) found with the remains are now the property of the museum and though these are your ancestors and the ancestors of your community you will not be given them back because they were sold to the museum by the current property owners. For many Haudenosaunee tribes this is the reality they face every day. This is the battle for their ancestors’ remains and their sacred artifacts that hold so much meaning to them. And the struggle for land that they laid not only their ancestors to rest but also the land that, before European settlers arrived, was their home to care for.
Haudenosaunee tribes have maintained much of their lands for thousands of years despite the settling of European settlers and the breaking of treaties by the American government. They have also gone to great lengths to maintain their sovereignty among these broken treaties. But what appears to be the hardest situation is the repatriation of ancestral remains and sacred artifacts. Many of the native “artifacts” found in museums all over the world have been removed from sacred burials, sold to the highest bidders, and displayed for public amusement despite the meaning to the people whose families are on display. This idea that these people no longer exist and that it is okay to display their ancestors is frightening. There are laws that prevent grave robbers from removing bodies or property from graves sites, in order to exhume a body from a grave there has to be reasonable cause and a court order, yet to take the ancestors of the Haudenosaunee and other native tribes is not illegal. These laws send a message that it’s okay to walk into a museum and observe sacred objects without a second thought as to what those objects mean to those whom they belong. Chris Abrams, Seneca Repatriation Coordinator, fights daily to have the sacred objects and ancestors returned to the Seneca people for reburial. Much to the dismay of her tribe because this process is long, expensive, and daunting.
Before the process begins, however, the tribe must raise money among itself, or apply for grants through the federal government, through NAGPRA. NAGPRA, the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, is an act requiring federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American “cultural items” to their respective people. Cultural items include human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. In addition, the Act establishes a program of federal grants to assist in the repatriation process and authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to assess civil penalties on museums that fail to comply. It is now the strongest federal legislation pertaining to aboriginal remains and artifacts (NAGPRA, 4/3/2011). Though the Act is supposed to ensure that the remains of Native Americans are treated the same as those of any other decent, the process by which those tribes attempting to regain custody of their ancestors and sacred for reburial and traditional ceremony is very long and arduous, sometimes so difficult that it takes the members of the tribe away from traditional practices as they ensure the return of their ancestors. But with the proposed budget cuts from the federal government to NAGPRA, this may mean for these aboriginal tribes an even more difficult time attempting to get their ancestors and sacred artifacts back from the museums and universities that are federally funded, because now they will lack the funding to travel and lack the federal backing to enforce that the sacred remains and sacred artifacts indeed be returned to the tribes.
The fight for their ancestors is a long process, a process which involves proving to non-native people, the museums or universities, the importance of having their ancestors, and also whether or not the remains are in fact the ancestors of these native people and get federal approval to go after a sacred object. Also a part of the process is that the tribal office is to confirm that the site where the remains were found was in fact a burial site (Abrams). This is a process which can take years and all the while the remains and artifacts remain on display and under observation at the respective museum or university. Once the institution agrees to return the remains to the Seneca people, they have the option of keeping the sacred objects and burial artifacts (Abrams). Many tribes refuse to take their ancestors back because there is no sacred ceremony for reburial and they do not know how to resend their ancestor on their journey through the afterlife. Upon receiving their ancestors’ remains, the Seneca are very apprehensive about where they are willing to re-bury them for fear of looters or digging of the new burial site. For the Seneca it is not traditional to re-bury their ancestors, so they too are without a reburial ceremony, so speakers say what it is they think needs to be said to send their ancestors on their journey (Abrams).
Though the struggle for repatriation of some of the remains of their ancestors is sometimes a success it is still a struggle to receive the sacred artifacts such as masks and Wampum belts (a sign of the treaties between the confederacy and the US government), along with other sacred burial artifacts. The Seneca tribe was allowed to borrow some of their ceremonial masks for their winter festival each year but was made to return them to the museum after the ceremonies were done. Within the last year the Haudenosaunee received 230 of the ceremonial masks back from the Rochester Museum. But this was not after a long fight over whom the masks belonged to, the masks were obviously Haudenosaunee ceremonial masks, but the museum felt that the masks were theirs and they did not want to give them back. When the tribes received the masks though, they were contaminated with arsenic and mercury, so the people were fearful of using the masks in any of their ceremonies for fear of being poisoned by the masks. They have given the responsibility of decontamination to the Rochester Museum as it is believed they are the cause of the contamination. Among the few things returned to the Haudenosaunee people there were also a few Wampum belts returned to the confederacy by the New York Museum, was protest by some of the museum staff that the natives did not know how to take care of the belts. These belts were taken and set tobe auctioned (for approximately $60,000 each), they only received the belts back after threatening to protest the auction house the day of the auction. The tribal office is charged with monitoring websites and auctions to be sure that their sacred artifacts are not being sold to the highest bidder by people who have no connection to the people and the meaning of the secrecy of the objects.
The Smithsonian Nation Museum of American History is guilty of having over 10,000 native remains; these are human remains that had been laid to rest by their families and tribes. These remains are not unclaimed, their deaths not unknown, they are accounted for. Yet the remains of these mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons remain in a room, a closet, on display for people many of which have the misguided belief that Native Americans are only history that they deserve to have a display dedicated to them in a national museum. But God forbid it that the remains of any Euro-American family are exhumed and placed on display there would be hell to pay. And the public would not rest and it would become a national travesty. But when it comes to the sacred remains of a people who are cast away and cast aside and forced to the crevices of the nation and given little rights, then it’s okay few complain or makes a big deal in alliance with the native people whose history is being decimated.
- Chris Abrams, Repatriation Coordinator (Seneca) “Repatriation”, 4/20 /2011, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. http://www.megaupload.com/?d=YINL8VK0
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Native_American_Graves_Protection_and_Repatriation_Act. April 3, 2011 “Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.”
- http://www.indiancountrytoday.com/national/83643187.html. Feb. 5, 2010 “NAGPRA suffers surprising proposed budget cut.”
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