Sacred artifacts returned to Northern Calif. tribe

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – White deerskins, condor feathers and head dresses made of bright red woodpecker scalps are among more than 200 sacred artifacts that are once again in the possession of a Northern California Indian tribe.

The Yurok Tribe celebrated the items’ return this past week – among the largest repatriation of Native American sacred objects ever – from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.

“It’s part of the fabric of who we are and why we are,” said Javier Kinney, who helped truck the artifacts back from Suitland-Silver Hill, Md. It’s a little bit of mixed emotion – sadness that they were gone for so long but joy and excitement that they’re back. It’s like family coming back home.”

The tribe has 5,500 members and lives on 55,000 acres along the Klamath River near the Oregon border. Its leaders say the artifacts date back hundreds and maybe even thousands of years. They will continue to be used in ceremonies intended to heal the world.

At least some of them will also be displayed at a cultural center on the reservation that will be open to the public, said Buffy McQuillen, the tribe’s repatriation coordinator.

The artifacts, which were part of a welcoming ceremony conducted on Friday, were part of the collection of George Gustav Heye, a wealthy investment banker who bought them from still another collector some time in the early 1900s.

“What we don’t know is how that collector acquired them,” McQuillen said. “We don’t know who the seller was.”

Legislation passed by Congress in 1990 requires museums that receive federal funding and federal agencies to identify certain types of Native American artifacts in their collections and consider returning them if requested by a tribe. Similar legislation passed a year earlier by Congress governs the Smithsonian Institution.

More than 1.1 million items, including human remains, have been identified as eligible for repatriation by various museums and federal agencies since those laws were enacted, according to federal officials. It’s not clear how many have been repatriated.

Wendy Teeter, a lecturer in American Indian Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles and a curator at the school’s Fowler Museum, said not all tribes want items back.

“There have been many repatriations that haven’t happened because the tribe doesn’t have a place to put the object or the money,” she said. “I’m holding them until they’re ready.”

Teeter said establishing an object’s connection to a particular tribe can also be difficult.

In the case of the Yurok, it took about four years to process the tribe’s request, as museum officials looked at their archives to determine who collected the items and how they were acquired, said Cara Fama, a researcher at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Tribal officials say their request for more than 100 additional items is still pending.

The Government Accountability Office, Congress’s investigative arm, says some federal agencies have still not complied with the requirement to inventory items eligible for repatriation. In a report released last month, the GAO says they have also failed to publish notices that would allow tribes to request their return.

“The amount of work put into identifying … items and the quality of the documents prepared varied widely,” the report found.

The Smithsonian Institution and its museums were not included in the analysis.

Officials blame limited resources in part for the failure.

“No one likes having a backlog, having to make a tribe wait as we research their claim,” Fama said. “But there are only so many researchers to go around.”

Fama said it’s hard to say whether the Yurok items are the largest repatriation of sacred objects ever, given the large number of museums and federal agencies that possess and have returned Native American objects.

Still, she said the collection given back to the tribe is significant in its size.

“We’re very excited that these things are going back to where they belong and are going to be used again for renewal and preservation of these ceremonies.”

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