Giving Native American art back to the tribes
In May, the Portland Art Museum sent nine objects back to the Tlingit community in Southeast Alaska where they came from in the 1930s.
Objects including a killer whale hat and robes, a mud shark hat and three mud shark shirts were repatriated to the Naanya.aayí clan in and around Wrangell, Alaska, where they had originated. The museum had purchased the items from a collector almost 100 years ago.
The claim was filed in 2002 under the 1990 federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and was approved by the museum in 2019. At the time, Luella Knapp, a member of the Naanya.aayí clan, said, "Receiving them back, one by one, brings back the spirit of the person who wore them. We are so happy to have them returned to Wrangell's Naanya.aayí."
Kathleen Ash-Milby, PAM's curator of Native American Art, said recently the museum has about 20 objects still under claim from different groups under NAGPRA.
"We share inventories of our collection with the federally recognized tribes. If they want to come and do research or look at items, we host those delegations. And then they can make a claim," Ash-Milby told Pamplin Media Group recently.
She said the museum did a repatriation, before she arrived in 2019, of some medicine bundles that went back to the Crow.
Art versus religion
Tribes tend to want ceremonial and sacred objects returned, not art or craft objects.
"Luckily, this is an art museum, not a natural history museum. There are definitely items that are sacred and ceremonial, that are in the collection and should be repatriated, and they certainly will never be exhibited," Ash-Milby said. "They've been separated from the rest of the collection for further research. We're not actively collecting that type of material."
Ash-Milby explained that the cultural material is really about cultural practice. "We've received several large donations where they just took the whole thing. And when they were going through it, it was like, 'Whoa, there's absolutely no purpose for a medicine bundle in an art museum.' Actually, there's no purpose in any museum. I can't speak for what other people have done in the past. But, to me, I feel like this is a finite issue. We're going to get through all the claims that we have eventually."
She added that the Portland Art Museum is trying to build relationships with the minorities it has traditionally overlooked.
"When you look at NAGPRA, as legislation, they're the letter of the law. But the spirit of the legislation is really about building those connections and relationships that should be there to begin with. The spirit of NAGPRA was really like, 'Hey, we're going to help you talk to the Native people, and that's only a good thing.'"
She added, "The other project that we have on the docket is to reinstall the permanent collection galleries (in the Native American wing), which is primarily our historic collections. A complete reboot."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.
Have a thought or opinion on the news of the day? Get on your soapbox and share your opinions with the world. Send us a Letter to the Editor!