- By Jenna Kunze
Former Field Museum employee Debra Yepa-Pappan (Jemez Pueblo), who left her position after six years in June 2023, told Native News Online that it's disappointing that it took a change in law to compel the museum to do what’s right.She remembered past instances of Indigenous visitors notifying museum staff that there were sacred items on display, such as a ceremonial mask in the Northwest Coast Hall, that were inappropriate for public viewing. “It had to take a change in the law for [the Field Museum] to act on covering cases,” Yepa-Pappan said. “What that shows me is that there isn't confidence or acknowledgement that tribal knowledge is important and valid. I think there needs to be more understanding institutionally about why this is important to Native nations.” Sunshine Bear (Winnebago Tribe), the repatriation officer for the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and a member of the repatriation task force for the Field Museum, said that she’s hopeful the changes to NAGPRA fill in the cracks tribal nations were falling through, such as the removal of the term “culturally unidentifiable” in the new law. The majority of human remains in institutions today have been deemed “culturally unidentifiable” by the institutions that hold them, an unintended loophole in the law that has allowed museums decision-making authority to determine kinship and cultural affiliation, and therefore—in many cases— of oral history, geographic affiliation to the area where remains were unearthed, and other traditional knowledge.
“I'm hoping that [these changes] open some doors,” Bear told Native News Online. “This is a step forward, but it’s not solving everything. There’s definitely much more work to be done to ensure NAGPRA is working for tribes.”Other institutions, such as the Illinois State Museum, are using the new regulations as a reset to make sure that tribal consultation is at the forefront of their work. “We have been working to remove all [associated funerary objects] and human remains off display, that was done before I got here,” said Heather Miller (Wyandotte Nation), the museum’s director of tribal relations. Miller was hired in 2022 to build relationships with dozens of tribal nations the museum is undertaking consultation with in an effort to clear its collection of nearly 6,000 human remains and more than 30,000 burial objects, according to the federal database. “I feel confident that the [items] we have on display are okay. However, I think that these new regs are asking us to take a step back and say: we as a museum see this as okay, but have our tribal partners deemed this as okay? That’s the next step.” On Jan. 20, The Cleveland Museum of Art followed the Field Museum’s example and installed opaque covers on three display cases containing Native American artifacts while it initiated tribal consultation. Other museums, such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, got ahead of the NAGPRA update when it made in October that removed a lot of potentially sensitive items from exhibit.
Melanie O’Brien, who administers the National NAGPRA Program on behalf of the Secretary of the Interior, told Native News Online that her office has received a lot of questions on what museums need to do to comply with the new duty of care requirement.In response, her office created a to guide museums in questions ranging from ‘what is a duty of care’ to explaining why consent is important and necessary. O’Brien specifically pointed to the question: “Does our museum need to remove all human remains and potential cultural items from (the) exhibit?” The answer, according to the FAQ, depends on a museum’s record of consultation and the type of item on exhibit. “If, through consultation, an Indian Tribe agreed to putting an object in an exhibit, no action is required,” the sheet says. “ If, during past consultation, an Indian Tribe requested that the museum remove certain objects from the exhibit, but the museum refused to do so, the museum should remove or cover the objects as soon as possible. If the museum has human remains or cultural items in an exhibit but has never consulted on the human remains, objects, or general content of the exhibit, the museum should prioritize removal or covering of any human remains and funerary objects in particular. The museum should also initiate consultation on the human remains and funerary objects as quickly as possible to determine the preferred treatment of consulting parties.”
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