Nanette Kelley: CARES Act, NAGPRA may correct a grotesque historical injustice

Indigenous Ancestral Territories, Calif. — Imagine if you will, a pandemic comes along, and another culture takes advantage of the situation to claim your Indigenous-made cultural items as their own. In fact, museums across the country are about to enter the Irony Zone. 

For the past few centuries, while Indigenous communities suffer tragedies such as disease, land theft, boarding schools, and other acts of genocide at the hands of government, Euro-Americans have easily alleviated the starving, struggling, and sometimes extinct Indigenous peoples of their cultural heritage. Grave robbers and looters often cite erroneous justifications for their egregious acts including science, pseudoscience, charity or “respect for Native Americans.” However, due to the federal sanctioned institutionalized Manifest Destiny mindset, the root cause behind pillaging of Indigenous cultures is greed, money and dominance.

Cover art by John Gordon Swogger for NAGPRA Comics’ Journeys to Complete the Work: Stories about Repatriations and Changing the Way We Bring Native American Ancestors Home, produced by Sonya Atalay & Jen Shannon 2017. Used with permission

The ill-gotten cultural items were often sold to museums which placed them with Indigenous human remains on display, and some were sold to private collectors who later turned these collections into museums. According to Tony Platt’s book Grave Matters, local resident H. H. Stuart (1885-1976) a board member of both the Humboldt Historical Society and the Clarke Memorial Museum (present day Clarke Historical Museum), had legally looted Yurok gravesites at O-pyúweg (Big Lagoon) and Wiyot gravesites at Duluwat (Indian Island), totaling over six hundred graves throughout Humboldt County. In 1973, Stuart sold many of these items for $13,500 to Gene Favell, founder of the Favell Museum in Klamath Falls, Oregon which boasts “over 100,000 artifacts” from Indigenous tribes throughout the Americas.

It wasn’t until the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) that these injustices could be rectified. NAGPRA mandates that museums repatriate specific Indigenous cultural items to lineal descendants, Indian tribes, Alaska Native Corporations, and Native Hawaiian organizations. According to NAGPRA regulations, a “museum” is any institution or State or local government agency (including any institution of higher learning) that has possession of, or control over, human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony. Unfortunately, repatriation under the act only applies to institutions that receive federal funding.

In 2011, Platt writes, “Given that Favell has not received federal funds, it is not legally required to publish an inventory of holdings that constitute ‘funerary objects’ as a precursor to possible repatriation.” In addition, as recent as March 26, 2021, the Favell Museum website indicates they receive “no government funds and little money from grants.”

NAGPRA regulations mandate each museum that receives federal funds and has possession or control over holdings or collections of NAGPRA applicable cultural items must compile an inventory, and, to the fullest extent possible, must identify the geographical and cultural affiliation of each item to facilitate repatriation.

However, the NAGPRA definition of a Museum that receives federal funds includes, “the receipt of funds by a museum after November 16, 1990, from a federal agency through any grant, loan, contract (other than a procurement contract), or other arrangement by which a federal agency makes or made available to a museum aid in the form of funds…” Therefore, it would stand to reason a museum that receives federal aid through the CARES Act in the form of a grant or loan is deemed to receive federal funds. For example, NAGPRA regulations mandate each museum that receives federal funds and has possession or control over holdings or collections of NAGPRA applicable cultural items must compile an inventory, and, to the fullest extent possible, must identify the geographical and cultural affiliation of each item to facilitate repatriation.

A search of USASPENDING.gov, the official open data source of federal spending exposed thatin 2020 and 2021, the Favell Museum Inc. received two loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA): one on May 6, 2020 for $24,200 and another on January 23, 2021 for $24,273 to “aid small businesses in maintaining a work force during the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

In addition, other local museums that hold Native American collections and received federal funds during the pandemic may also fall under NAGPRA regulations to facilitate repatriation and compile and publish an inventory of their holdings. This might include the Trees of Mystery (site of the “End of the Trail” Museum) with three loans totaling $533,980 and the Clarke Historical Museum with two SBA loans totaling $59,588. Although not previously beholden to the act, the Clarke has worked with tribes regarding repatriation; according to a 2017 Times-Standard article, “it has returned items gathered by Cecile Clarke from Indian Island to the Wiyot Tribe.”

Federal aid through the CARES Act may have turned the tables in favor of repatriation of cultural items from previously private collections to not only local tribes but tribes throughout the U.S. while plunging hundreds of struggling museums into the irony zone, the loss of Indigenous cultural items during a time of great instability, something tribes throughout the world know too well.

In a statement by the Favell Museum Founders, Gene and Winifred Favell, “The Favell Museum is dedicated to the Indians who roamed and loved this land before the coming of the white man...” However, due to the inherent past tense of their statement, clearly, Mr. and Mrs. Favell did not receive the memo that Indigenous peoples are alive, still here, and ready to alleviate “the white man’s” struggle during the COVID-19 Pandemic by reclaiming their own Indigenous cultural wealth.

Nanette Kelley (Osage Nation/Cherokee Nation) is the 2021 California Arts Council Administrators of Color Fellow for the Greater Northern Region.







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