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The Burke Museum Returns Artifacts to Northwest Tribes

Story by
Nancy Joseph

When two Native American house posts from the Burke Museum’s collection made the long journey to southeast Alaska in July, it was a homecoming of sorts. The posts had been taken from Cape Fox Village illegally in 1899, and their return was cause for great celebration among the Tlingit people, who organized a traditional feast to mark the event. 

“They consider the poles their relatives,” says Robin Wright, curator of Native American Art at the Burke Museum, who made the trip to Alaska with the posts. “To think they had been separated this long, and now come back, was very moving.” 

The house posts are just the latest—and most dramatic—example of an ongoing effort by the Burke Museum to repatriate Native American artifacts to their original owners, primarily through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a federal law passed in 1990. It has been a massive undertaking, both for the museum and the tribes involved. 

UW Professor James Nason and Leilani Chubby, program director for Quinault Cultural Affairs, clean artifacts to be repatriated by the Burke Museum.

UW Professor James Nason and Leilani Chubby, program director for Quinault Cultural Affairs, clean artifacts to be repatriated by the Burke Museum.

“When NAGPRA was passed, people predicted that this would be the end of museums as we know them,” says James Nason, professor of anthropology, who has headed the repatriation effort at the Burke. “They envisioned tribes driving pick-up trucks to the backs of museums and just taking it all out, as well as much important research being stopped. But that has not been the case.”

Instead, tribes have faced an arduous process of reviewing extensive museum collections and identifying individual artifacts eligible for return, based on Repatriation Act guidelines. 

Before tribes could even review artifacts, the Burke and other institutions with Native American holdings were required to provide summaries and inventories of their holdings in five categories: human remains, associated burial goods, unassociated burial goods, sacred objects essential to ongoing religious practice, and objects of cultural patrimony. 

“That last one—objects of cultural patrimony—is the hardest to get a handle on,” says Wright. “The idea is that the object is so important to a community that no one person had a right to sell it or give it away. A similar example for the U.S. would be the Declaration of Independence or the Liberty Bell.” 

How did such objects land in museum collections in the first place? Often through the zealous work of collectors in the late 1800s. 

“By 1890, whole tribes had become extinct,” explains Nason. “The Native American population of the United States was about two percent of what it had been. Scientists said, ‘If we don’t do something right now to study these people, we will have lost our chance. They will be gone.’ So there was massive collection activity for cultural objects. One businessman, George Heye, collected more than one million objects in just 12 years.”

Some collectors purchased artifacts from Native American tribes. Others were less ethical. The Cape Fox house posts were taken without permission by the Harriman Expedition, which was traveling up the Alaskan coast to study the region’s flora and fauna. John Burroughs, who was on board, wrote of Cape Fox Village, “It was evident that the village had not been occupied in seven or eight years. Why not, therefore, secure some of these totem poles for the museums of the various colleges . . . ?” But the village had not, in fact, been abandoned. 

The situation worsened after the Antiquities Act was passed in 1906, declaring all archaeological materials valuable resources for the U.S. “With that act, Native American human remains were no longer their own,” says Nason. “The bodies of the dead became property like baskets and bowls in collections. Are there any other American human remains that could be considered that way? No.” 

It was not until the 1960s, with heightened international community concern over the looting of antiquities worldwide, that issues of wrongful ownership were seriously addressed by treaties and international conventions. It took several more decades for the Repatriation Act to be passed by the U.S. government. 

The Burke has more than 40,000 specimens in its ethnology collection and more than one million in its archaeology collections. Most are Native American in origin. As a result, the scope of its repatriation work has been staggering. Nason estimates that it has thus far required 43,000 staff hours, at a cost of approximately $1.2 million.

“With few exceptions, all of this staff work has been carried out by existing staff, on top of their normal duties,” Nason says, clearly frustrated by a lack of state support for this effort. “We have done what we had to do, and what was the right thing for us to do, but it has been, in my judgment, at a very high price.” 

And it’s not over yet. The Burke, which has one of the most sweeping Native American policies in the nation, is voluntarily preparing biannual inventories of new acquisitions to keep tribes informed on an ongoing basis—establishing a new national standard for NAGPRA work. And the museum continues to work closely with more than 30 tribes in Washington, helping them review artifacts and plan for their care after they are returned. 

“What if you are a tribe that is getting tens of thousands of artifacts from us?” asks Nason. “Quite literally, what do you do? Box them up, put them in a semi-truck, drive them home. . . and then what? This is a huge concern for tribes.” 

Human remains often present the greatest challenge. “One tribe in another state has already said it won’t take human remains, since they already buried them once,” says Nason. “Others have reburied them in the spot from which they were taken. Others are considering creating new cemetery sites. This is not a simple matter for tribes.” 

Nason has led more than 20 workshops for tribes on these and related issues. Some groups are creating tribal museums to exhibit repatriated materials. Others prefer to have the Burke Museum hold their artifacts in trust, allowing the Burke to exhibit them with tribal permission. “We have tended to be far more proactive and supportive to tribes than most other museums have, and we have one of the best reputations in the nation because of it,” says Nason. “We’ve helped tribes see how this can work.”

As for the house posts from Cape Fox, they will be installed in a new community center in Saxman, near the long-abandoned Cape Fox site. “These things contain our tribal history, tell us who we really are,” Tlingit repatriation manager Irene Shields told the Chicago Tribune in July. “These things will make our grandchildren proud of who they are.”