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For decades, Native American groups requested the return of artifacts and human remains. Though there were occasional repatriations, the protests either fell on deaf ears or tribes lacked the financial and legal support necessary to complete the process. (Terry Snowball / NMAI)

The Road to Repatriation

The National Museum of the American Indian works with Native Tribes to bring sacred artifacts home again

In August 2007, 38 sacred Apache objects traveled from the National Museum of the American Indian’s collection in Maryland to Arizona. The shipping crates featured breathing holes for the masks and revered artifacts inside, which Apaches believe are alive. Before sending them off, a medicine man blessed them with yellow pollen, a holy element that fosters connection with the creator.

After a ceremony at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Apache elders returned the objects to sacred mountains and sites in the Southwest where they believe the spirits reside.

This transfer was one of thousands that have taken place since a series of federal laws in 1989 and 1990 compelled museums to work with Native American tribes across the country in repatriating human remains and sacred objects.

For the Apache, the return of these objects from museum storage to their native soil restores a balance that was thrown off more than a century ago when collectors and archaeologists started stockpiling Indian artifacts.

“The elders told us that they need to come home out of respect,” says Vincent Randall, a Yavapai-Apache who works on repatriation issues. “Otherwise the consequences of fooling around with these things are alcoholism, suicide, domestic violence and all of society’s woes.”

Masks and headdresses are the physical embodiment of spirits for the Apache, so bringing them home is crucial for Native Tribes.

“Once they are created through the instruction of the almighty and are blessed, they become a living entity,” Randall says. “They still have that power. That’s why it’s very potent. We don’t fool around with them.”

Most museum and private collections date back to the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries when the U.S. government moved Native Americans onto reservations. At the time, many scientists wanted to document a culture they believed was vanishing. As both scientists and looters amassed artifacts and human remains in a frenzy of collecting, Native American leaders believe they lost part of their culture.

But far from being the last remnants of an extinct people, some of these artifacts are still integral components of living cultures. Having bones and sacred objects in storage in museums is an affront to Native beliefs.

“Museums and other people think of this as science, something that is not real. They think of them as objects and images that are nothing but artwork,” says Ramon Riley, a White Mountain Apache leader who works on repatriation. “It causes pain to tribal members and our leaders. That is something that only we understand.”

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