Massachusetts Museum Returns Wounded Knee Artifacts to Sioux Tribes

A ceremony on Saturday marked the conclusion of a long repatriation process

Barre Museum
Leola One Feather, of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, observes as Native American artifacts are photographed in Barre, Massachusetts.  Associated Press

A small Massachusetts museum is returning around 150 items, some connected to the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, to the Lakota Sioux peoples. The sacred artifacts have been in the collection of the Founders Museum in Barre, Massachusetts, for over a century.

On Saturday, members of the Cheyenne River Sioux and Oglala Sioux Tribes traveled there to attend a repatriation ceremony; the official handoff of the items will take place privately at a later date.

“Ever since that Wounded Knee massacre happened, genocides have been instilled in our blood,” said Surrounded Bear, 20, who traveled from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota to attend the ceremony, per the Boston Globe’s John Hilliard. “And for us to bring back these artifacts, that’s a step towards healing. That’s a step in the right direction.”

The Wounded Knee Massacre took place in 1890, when United States Army troops slaughtered some 300 Native American men, women and children in South Dakota. Congress formally apologized for the massacre in 1990.

Also in 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act passed, imposing repatriation regulations on institutions that receive federal funding. Private institutions that don’t receive federal support—like the Founders Museum—aren’t covered by the law, but many are still taking steps toward returning cultural artifacts.

Ann Meilus, president of the Barre Museum Association, tells the Globe that Saturday’s ceremony was a long time coming—the culmination of roughly three decades of grappling with the artifacts’ future and “trying to come to a positive conclusion.”

“It was always important to me to give them back,” she says. “I think the museum will be remembered for being on the right side of history for returning these items.”

The Founders Museum acquired the items from a 19th-century traveling showman, according to Philip Marcelo of the Associated Press. The collection includes moccasins, necklaces, clothing, ceremonial pipes, tools and other objects.

“In the past 135 years, the public’s use and perception of museums have changed significantly,” wrote the Barre Museum Association and the Barre Library Association, which manage the Founders Museum, in a statement earlier this summer.

Repatriation processes often move slowly. In this case, the museum said that determining which objects truly came from Wounded Knee was challenging. Each item also needed to be identified, photographed and cataloged before its return.

“This is real personal,” Leola One Feather, of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, told the AP in July as she observed the cataloging process. “It may be sad for them to lose these items, but it’s even sadder for us because we’ve been looking for them for so long.”

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