Monday, May 10, 2010

Indian Peace Medals: Issues with Ownership and Repatriation--Spiegel

My final paper looked at the issues surrounding ownership and repatriation of Indian peace medals in the United States. These medals were used by the United States as a major part of Indian diplomacy from 1789 until the early 1890s. Many were highly valued by their recipients, and some Indians were buried with their medals, while others were passed down through their family.

Red Jacket with 1792 George Washington Indian Peace Medal. Printed by McKenney and Hall. 1834. The peace medal is now in the collection of the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society.

I looked at three different case studies of how Indian peace medals have been repatriated. The first, a Jefferson peace medal found in an Indian burial in Washington in 1964, was repatriated in 2006 and subsequently reburied.

The second, which also involves a Jefferson peace medal, has a more disputed provenance, but it too is believed to have been found in a grave site. Currently in the possession of the Oregon Historical Society, it will soon be repatriated and there is debate about the proper place to put the medal ( reburial or display?).

1801 Jefferson Indian Peace Medal. Oregon Historical Society. Small Size (55 mm).

The final case study looked at a medal from the Minnesota Historical Society that was repatriated about a decade ago, but has been left on display at the society. It is notable that this medal was not found in a burial site and was actually donated by the family of a tribal chief. This example shows how the tribe and the museum reached to an agreement that serves both sides.

Indian peace medals represent the shared cultural heritage of the United States and Native Americans. Although a few medals fall under the NAGPRA (1990) law and are required to be repatriated, most do not, yet they are still an important part of Native American history and culture. Because peace medals were made by the United States but given to Indians, they are a significant part of the collective identity of America. As I wrote in my paper, “Institutions, collectors, and Indians should recognize the unique nature of peace medals and work together to determine what options best preserve the purpose and significance of these medals.”

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