An Ohio organization is #2 in Native American artifacts that must be returned by federal law. What do we do ?

An Ohio organization is #2 in Native American artifacts that must be returned by federal law. What do we do ?

By: Tana Weingartner | WVXU

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CINCINNATI, Ohio (WVXU) — A federal law beginning in 1990 requires institutions like museums and universities that receive federal funding to return Native American artifacts — things like hundreds of thousands of human remains, grave goods, and other items. The Ohio Historical Society, called Connecting to Ohio Historyholds the second largest collection of objects in the country.

The National Park Service maintains an inventory of collections institutions were required to submit under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The list includes some 870,000 objects, but is limited to public institutions. There are hundreds of thousands of unknown human remains and other artifacts hidden in private collections. (Although Indian country today reported last year that NAGPRA may apply if private museums have accepted federal stimulus money.)

Alex Wesaw is director of the American Indian Relations Division for Ohio History Connection (OHC) and a member of the Potawatomi’s Pokagon Band. He spoke with WVXU’s Tana Weingartner about the slow process of repatriating nearly 118,000 people and items.

Chief Glenna Wallace of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma was among the speakers at the 2019 Ohio History Connection Tribal Nations Conference at the Ohio History Center in Columbus. OHC meets with tribal nations to decide how they want their ancestral objects repatriated. [James D. DeCamp | Courtesy of Ohio History Connection]

Why Ohio History Connection Has So Many Objects

Wesaw says one of the reasons Ohio History Connection ranks so high on the Park Service’s list of institutions is that one of the reasons the organization was created was to prevent artifacts from being out of state. (University of California, Berkeley is #1.)

“In 1885, when our organization was founded, there was a ton of archaeological material – individuals, related grave goods, etc. – that were actually leaving the state because other archaeologists were coming here, digging in the ground, disrupting mounds, and everything was going to other institutions, whether they were international institutions or other states,” he says. “So when our organization was founded in 1885, the One of the main reasons we were founded was to keep everything that grew out of the ground in Ohio.”

Why the process is so slow

The rate of repatriation of collections is incredibly slow. It’s not just about handing over items. This requires, in some cases, identifying objects and determining which tribes they belong to, consulting with those tribes, and coming up with a respectful plan and solution.

Wesaw notes that Ohio History Connection works with some 45 federally recognized tribes “and they all have different preferences, they all have different customs, they all have different teachings and stories about how they see, see and live (from here”.

Also, there are no tribes located in Ohio – they were all forcibly removed. Distance makes planning consultations more difficult.

What Wesaw Doesn’t Buy is an excuse used by some institutions that claim they can’t repatriate items because they don’t know who owns them – items that have been classified by some as “culturally unidentifiable “. They are sometimes objects that date from earlier classifications of people such as the Hopewell culture, for example.

“You can’t divide groups and say they’re not part of the same communities or they don’t have any connection to the descendant communities of today’s tribes,” he explains. “It’s a problem there, but when you do this work from a tribal perspective, the perspective is just different.

“For too long, institutions have historically used… ‘culturally unidentifiable’ as a way to cling to individuals or objects, and from a tribal perspective, that’s just plain unreasonable.”

Why repatriation is important

In addition to being required by the federal government, for Wesaw it’s all about doing the right thing. He says we wouldn’t let someone today dig up your “great, great, great grandmother and keep them in an institution on a shelf in a cardboard box”.

He adds, “We need to show these people that we may not know their names, but they still deserve the dignity and respect that we would show anyone else.”

What about other local institutions?

The Cincinnati Museum Center, University of Cincinnati, Dayton Museum of Natural History, Fernald, Northern Kentucky University, and Earlham College also have items recorded in the NAGPRA inventory.

Tyler Swinney of the Cincinnati Museum Center tells WVXU that the museum is actively working to repatriate its collection, but like OHC, the process is slow.

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Aubrey L. Morgan