Dispute With American Museum of
Condensed by Native Village
A blessing staff from the Tonto Apache tribe in Arizona.
Four years ago, the American Museum of Natural History agreed to return 77 objects from its collection to the Apache Tribes. These items include headwear, feathers, bows and arrows, medicine rings and satchels containing crystals and charms.
But nothing has been done because of an unusual but persistent disagreement: will the museum will officially designate the items as sacred relics that should never have been taken?
The dispute hinges on legal classifications under federal law. The museum wants to refer to the objects as “cultural items." But the Apaches insist these items be designated as “sacred” and “items of cultural patrimony.” The Apaches say the items are imbued with their religion’s holy beings. Tribal elders attribute problems like alcoholism and unemployment on reservations to their unsettled spirits. For Apaches, the museum’s position is insulting to them and their deities.
“This is them telling us they know more about Apache culture than the Apaches,” said Vincent Randall from the Yavapai-Apache Nation in Arizona, one of four Apache tribes allied in the dispute.
The museum, home to tens of thousands of American Indian artifacts, says that no insult was intended. While they declined to explain how their decision was reached, museum officials said they followed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a 1990 federal law that governs such repatriations.
“Determining classifications under NAGPRA is a complex process,” their statement said, “and the museum made the judgment consistent with established criteria. Upon return, the Western Apache are free to use and classify the cultural objects fully in accordance with tribal custom and traditions as they determine.”
The museum said Apaches' items were “lawfully obtained by a respected anthropologist approximately 100 years ago.” The Apaches dispute this.
That scholar, Pliny Earle Goddard, was employed by the museum in 1914. He lived among the Apache and studied their rituals, according to his letters.
The Apaches number 55,000 from over a dozen distinct groups in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. Since the early 1990s, they have fought for the return of items scattered in museums around the country.
Under the federal law, museums must classify items they intend to repatriate:
are those needed by tribes
and their spiritual leaders
to practice religion,
Federal officials who oversee NAGPRA agree that the AMNH is abiding by the letter of the law. However, they noted that museums almost always identify the contested items as "Objects of cultural patrimony”
David Tarler is a NAGPRA training and enforcement official. He said some tribes feel the term “cultural patrimony” means that the objects were taken from tribal hands without consent. Mr. Tarler said such an admission is “an important matter of healing” for those tribes.
"They want affirmation that they have always owned the objects tribally,” he said.
NAGPRA is meant to help American Indians reclaim burial, religious, and other items of enduring significance. Most objects were taken from reservations when the tribes suffered under resettlement, poverty and military control. In those days, spiritual items were stolen by visitors, confiscated by soldiers, or sold and bartered by hungry tribal members who lacked such authority.
“We were hunted down and overrun, and this is all part of our historical trauma that we still carry around,” said Ramon Riley from the White Mountain Apache Tribe. Riley and Apache leaders from the San Carlos, Tonto and Yavapai tribes are morally bound to demand the designations they deem more respectful.
“These are not playthings,” he said. “We use them in ceremonies to connect us with our creator.”
The Apaches say the Natural History Museum’s stance angers and perplexes them. On three earlier occasions -- in 1998, 1999 and 2007 -- the museum used the desired designations when repatriating Apache ceremonial caps, lightning sticks and similar articles. The museum has also used the more formal wording in 19 of 21 American Indian repatriations accords made since 1998.
In 2005, tribal members visited the American Museum of Natural History to identify the items. They explained why the items are singular, and went before a review committee which agree the items are part of the tribe’s cultural heritage.
The Apaches renewed their AMNH discussions after Chicago's Field Museum classified 146 tribal items as sacred objects of cultural patrimony based on “a greater understanding of Apache beliefs.” In doing so, the Field altered its 2006 decision to classify 56 of those objects as cultural items only.
Some two dozen museums have adopted the Apaches’ position in making their returns. These include the Denver Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the state museums of Arizona and New Mexico.
Mr. Randall said the social ills plaguing his tribe compel the Apaches to remain at loggerheads with the natural history museum in New York.
“If we disrespect the holy people, we suffer terrible consequences,” he said.