Sunday, May 9, 2010

Native American Conservation & Repatriation-- Cummings

**The Tlingit totem pole in the Peabody Museum before its repatriation
In my paper I discuss issues such as the way Native American museum objects are viewed, who and how to handle items during conservation, and the idea of repatriation. In each section I discuss general issues, specific spinoff issues and possible ways to deal with them. When I started my research I found that readily available information on these issues was generalized and I was still left with questions I wanted answered. This inspired me to create my own questions. I was fortunate enough to speak to a few conservators and specialists whose experiences and opinions greatly form the basis of my essay. Special thanks to Cara Fama, Research Specialist in the Repatriation Department at the NMAI, Maryland; Ricky Lightfoot, ex-president of Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Colorado; Kelly McHugh, NMAI conservator who worked on the Alaska Heritage Center project; and Lisa Young, Assistant Research Scientist in the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Michigan.

One issue was how museums and Native Americans understand objects. This includes the intangible vs. tangible debate, but also whether the public has a right to view these objects, and how to deal with conflicting views between Native Americans in different tribes or within the same tribe. Museums need to understand the importance of the intangible while Native Americans need to understand museums have to follow their own set of protocols. One protocol is the Freedom of Information act which forces museums to give information about objects even if museums remove them from display. Disputes between tribes will always be complicated in that choosing one over the other or even a compromise will cause problems.

My next issue was conservation. Dilemmas include who is allowed to handle the objects, what happens when Native American necessities contradict the practice of conservation and how conservators are expected to display and do their work. Some tribes require that only men or non-menstruating women conserve the art which especially difficult at places like NMAI where most of the conservators are women. Ceremonial maintenance like feeding or praying should be done by the tribe. Polly Nordstrand of the Hopi tribe once said, “In many Indian communities, some knowledge is seen as a privilege for the few, not a right for all”. (Ogden, 6) Some objects like totem poles are meant to deteriorate and return to the earth. A successful compromise is the Tlingit totem pole which was returned to Alaska in exchange for a modern one created by a traditional carver. The best compromise of display is an exhibit opens on May 22, 2010 at the Alaska Heritage Center. A special case and mounting system was created to traditionally exhibit objects, but will move the selected object to a controlled room to be handled and touched. Classes allow native Alaskans to learn traditional crafts by examining these objects.

Repatriation was my third issue. We must not forget the strain NAGPRA put on native people. Not all tribes had the time or money in the early 90’s to accept all items. It also brings up the issues of whether Native Americans are given an unfair advantage, what happens to the repatriated items, and the idea of reburying the dead. Not many religions have a protocol for reburying the dead. While tribes may want their ancestors’ remains back, sometimes they force others to rebury their dead or ignore the issue deeming the remains too spiritually damaged to repatriate.

The main thing I’ve learned is that even though consultations may be expensive and time consuming, their occurrence can result in extremely important answers for everyone involved. These answers can be translated into actions that benefit both museums and Native Americans. Every source I found or have talked to agreed on the need for consultations. These conferences can facilitate conservation in other forms of art like modern art. It is the necessary catalyst in the progression of this ever-changing field.

*Ed Tiulana, Cultural Programs Coordinator at the Alaska Heritage Center, teaching a native art class


1 comment:

  1. Interesting post and position on tangible and intangible properties. Have you read Rosita Worl's Harvard dissertation on the Tlingit perspective of this? It is entitled "Tlingit at.oow: tangible and intangible property," 1998.