An American Tribe Wants a German Museum to Return Native American Scalps

The German Museums Association says that scalps are not subject to the same ethical guidelines that govern other human remains

Chippewa men performing in an annual powwow held near Cass Lake, Minnesota.

Germany has long nurtured a fascination for Native Americans, and some German museums have surprisingly extensive collections of artifacts from the Old West. But as Melissa Eddy reports for the New York Times, changing norms about how the history of the American West is presented—and which objects accompany those tellings—are leading to friction between Native American tribes and German curators. 

In March, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of the Chippewa Indians sent a letter to the Karl Kay Museum in Radebuel, Germany, which includes an extensive Native American exhibit. The letter, Eddy reports, demanded that the museum return 17 human scalps—four of which it keeps on display—so that the tribe could give those remains a proper burial.

Museum protocol in Germany, however, is not on the side of the Chippewa. The Times elaborates: 

In the guidelines drawn up last year by the German Museums Association recommending how to care for human remains, a reference to scalps from “the indigenous people of America” who “fashioned trophies from the heads of their killed enemies” is listed under exceptions to human remains acquired in a context of injustice. “Killing one’s enemy and making use of his physical remains were socially accepted acts in those cultures,” the recommendations say.

Though public sentiment in the United States has slowly shifted since the 1960s toward supporting the right of indigenous peoples, especially the American Indians, to reclaim and define their own cultures from museums and institutions, no such transformation has taken place in Germany.

Although the museum curator and Cecil Pavlat, a cultural repatriation specialist who wrote the letter, have begun speaking on more amicable terms, it's not at all clear what will happen to the scalps, according to the Times. The two parties have agreed that the remains will be returned only if they can definitively be identified as Ojibwe (part of the Sault Tribe), although the means of determining that are still unclear. The German curators insist that human remains, like any other museum objects, are important as historical items worthy of preservation and protection.

As the Times ​points out, U.S. institutions such as the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian have agreed to return all human remains even if they cannot be specifically identified. The NMAI says it takes a "proactive approach" to returning remains; the U.S. also has a law that governs the repatriation of human remains.

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