As plundered items return to Wounded Knee, decisions await
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As plundered items return to Wounded Knee, decisions await
Young people are asked to carry boxes holding artifacts to the mass gravesite in Wounded Knee, S.D., on Dec. 29, 2022. The Oglala Sioux Tribe recently secured the return of cultural objects kept for over a century in a tiny Massachusetts museum and now, it is seeking consensus on their final resting place. (Tara Rose Weston/The New York Times)

by Julia Jacobs and Kayla Gahagan

NEW YORK, NY.- At a hilltop cemetery in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, the site of one of the bloodiest massacres by American soldiers against Native Americans, a small crowd gathered around a cluster of boxes that had been laid reverently atop 2 feet of snow.

Inside were Lakota cultural objects and belongings that had been returned after more than a century on the other side of the country: moccasins, sacred pipes, ritual clothing, beaded leather bags. Some are believed to have been taken from Wounded Knee immediately after the 1890 massacre, when U.S. troops killed as many as 300 or more Lakota men, women and children.

Since the 1890s the collection had been kept in a small-town library museum in Barre, Massachusetts, now known as the Founders Museum, sitting among displays of Victorian-era dolls, Civil War artifacts and taxidermy. But last year, after decades of anguished requests and false starts, the museum agreed to give the Oglala Sioux Tribe the items it had sought.

It has been more than three decades since Congress passed a law setting up a protocol for federally funded colleges and museums to return Native cultural heritage and, in many cases, human remains. The pace of restitutions has been slow, frustrating tribes that are awaiting the return of their plundered patrimony. But now, amid signs that more institutions are beginning to repatriate Native holdings, citizens of tribes like the Oglala Sioux find themselves confronting complicated questions about how to handle returns in ways that honor the dead and the past, and facilitate healing for the living.

There is broad consensus that human remains should be buried. Many call for burying or burning other objects as well — especially funerary items — in accordance with spiritual practices. Others would like to see items preserved and displayed for educational purposes in museums run by tribes, or restored to the descendants of those they were taken from.

“We need to listen to everybody, and we have to be patient,” Ivan Looking Horse, who had relatives killed at Wounded Knee, said at a ceremony Dec. 29 to mark the anniversary of the massacre and the return of the collection.

There are 574 federally recognized Native nations plus hundreds of others, all with their own practices, noted Shannon O’Loughlin, CEO for the Association on American Indian Affairs, a nonprofit that assists Native nations and Indigenous people with repatriation.

“It’s the tribe’s prerogative however they wish to utilize or reinvigorate the item,” said O’Loughlin, who is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

As of last year, fewer than one-third of the museums subject to the federal repatriation law had made all of the human remains in their collections available to tribes, leaving the remains of more than 100,000 people in limbo. The government recently proposed new regulations to speed the process.

The Peabody Museum at Harvard University is working to return a collection of hair taken from Native American children who were forced to attend government-run boarding schools. Martina Minthorn, the tribal historic preservation officer for the Comanche Nation in Oklahoma, said her relatives would receive hair shorn from her grandmother’s sister. She said they planned to place the hair on top of her grave site, where the wind could scatter it.

Tribal officials say they are seeing more voluntary returns outside the federal law.

In Oklahoma, the offices of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes recently received a 19th-century buckskin hairpiece, a necklace decorated with carved antlers and other items from a collector.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s offices in North Dakota received an anonymous package containing a human skull that was marked as coming from the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

At the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum in western New York, two men showed up with a Trader Joe’s bag full of bones that they said had come from their grandfather’s attic.

“I think it’s finally sinking in that people are starting to identify us as human beings and not as scientific specimens in need of study,” said Joe Stahlman, the tribal historic preservation officer for the Seneca Nation.

The small Massachusetts museum that returned part of its collection to Wounded Knee had long argued that it was not covered by the federal law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, because it did not receive federal funding.

But after decades of debate, the museum agreed last fall to return more than 130 objects in one of the highest-profile voluntary repatriations in recent years.

‘Trophies of War’

The story of how cultural items from the Great Plains came to a small but locally beloved museum in Barre, a Massachusetts town of about 5,500 people near Worcester, begins with Frank Root, a traveling shoe salesman from the town.

Months after the massacre at Wounded Knee, Root mounted a small exhibit of “Indian relics” that traveled around clothing and shoe stores in the Northeast. In 1891, Root told newspapers that some came from a man who claimed to have discovered buried “Indian goods” while bringing slain Lakota people to a mass grave at Wounded Knee.

One pair of moccasins in the collection was taken by a U.S. soldier from the feet of a slain Lakota leader, the newspapers reported.

“These were trophies of war,” Wendell W. Yellow Bull, 61, whose great-grandfather survived the massacre and who has helped lead discussions among descendants, said in an interview.

Root transferred the collection to Barre’s museum, a point of pride for the town that was housed in Woods Memorial Library, near the common.

The collection drew national attention in 1993 after a local professor sent photos of it to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, prompting a Lakota delegation from the Oglala Sioux Tribe to visit. Alex White Plume, who had relatives who were killed at Wounded Knee, recalled standing frozen in shock when he saw what was in the museum’s glass cases.

A brightly colored cradleboard with a doll inside. Beaded turtle and lizard charms, traditionally used to hold a child’s umbilical cord. A shirt used in the Ghost Dance, a religious movement that the U.S. government had sought to suppress. Hair from Spotted Elk, a Lakota chief who was killed that day.

“It just tears me up,” White Plume recalled.

The museum’s curator apologized for not realizing the “significance of these things” in a 1993 interview with The New York Times. But she also expressed reluctance to return historically significant items if they would be buried. “It seems a shame to rip a page out of history and bury it,” she said at the time.

Only Spotted Elk’s hair was returned, after a tribal court confirmed that Leonard Little Finger was related to the Lakota chief.

A Dispute Pushed to the 21st Century

Talks over the return of more items stalled for years.

After a small protest in 2007, Barre library leaders traveled to South Dakota, but negotiations over displaying some items there faltered amid disagreements over how much would be returned, said Ann Meilus, who has been involved with the Barre museum since the 1990s. Little Finger then challenged the museum’s claim that it fell outside federal repatriation law, but the government ultimately sided with the museum.

Negotiations were jump-started last year after Mia Feroleto, the editor and publisher of a magazine called New Observations who divides her time between Vermont and Pine Ridge, visited Barre and met with museum volunteers. Five items had labels indicating that they came from Wounded Knee, she said. “You can be an inspiration to others or you can be the next generation of perpetrators,” Feroleto recalled telling them.

Elizabeth Almen Martin, a museum board member, said it became clear to her that the collection had more significance to the Lakota people than it did to Barre residents.

“We decided that anything they wanted to have, they can have,” Martin said.

After a handover ceremony at a school in Barre, boxes containing the collection were carefully packed into an SUV and driven west by Cedric Broken Nose, a descendant of Spotted Elk.

“All these generations passed by,” he said, “and somehow it came to me and my generation.”

The Collection’s Future

On Dec. 29, the items were brought to Wounded Knee.

After prayers in Lakota, mourners made a procession around the boxes, which were placed atop the mass grave where some of their relatives were buried. On the snow beside the boxes, the descendants placed wasna, a traditional ground meat dish, and poured chokecherry juice.

“We hope the spirits are on their way now,” said Richard Broken Nose, an Oglala Lakota spiritual leader.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe is considered the caretaker of the collection, said Justin Pourier, a tribal official, and members of other tribes — including the Standing Rock Sioux, Cheyenne River Sioux and Rosebud Sioux — have joined discussions about its future, noting their ties to the history of Wounded Knee.

Jon Eagle Sr., the tribal historic preservation officer of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose great-great-grandmother was killed in the massacre, said that the items “belonged to our ancestors, and they shouldn’t be treated as personal property.”

Some would like to see the belongings buried, to bring them closer to their original owners. Others fear that could put them at risk of being stolen again.

Marlis Afraid of Hawk, 65, whose grandfather survived the massacre, supports burning all the objects, to hold fast to tradition: “When your relative died, you burn their belongings,” she said.

Ivan Looking Horse, 62, said that because the collection was diverse, he saw the potential for varying approaches.

“Some things are for burning, some are for burying and some things are for educating,” he said. “Others can be used for praying with generations to come.”

For now, the collection will stay at Oglala Lakota College. A caretaker plans to pray there daily, until the descendants reach a consensus on their final resting place.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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