Found  /  Argument

Indigenous Artifacts Should Be Returned to Indigenous People

It’s time to start learning about Native history from museums and cultural centers that are run by Native nations.

Until recently, exhibits about Native Americans were in museums of “natural history” because white Americans saw them as part of archaeology and anthropology rather than history. At its opening in the 1960s, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History had nothing about Native Americans, who instead were in the National Museum of Natural History alongside early primates and dinosaurs. The message was clear: Native Americans—perceived of as a monolithic culture—were primitive and destined for disappearance, fitting more with displays of animals than with the American History Museum’s message of technology and progress. In the early 20th century, the Yahi man known as Ishi was displayed as a living exhibit at the University of California Museum of Anthropology following the genocide of his people. In 1968, a group of Miwoks (Yosemites) visited the National Museum of Natural History and read in one of the exhibits that their tribe had gone “extinct” in the 19th century. And until the closures that happened in January, visitors at the American Museum of Natural History could see generic mannequins of Native men and women stoically conveying timeless primitiveness.

The latest changes are responding to new federal rules on the implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) regarding the rights of Native nations over sacred and funerary objects of their ancestors. The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C., founded as part of implementing NAGPRA, was a way to responsibly deal with the large collection of Native American skeletal remains and sacred burial objects held by the Smithsonian. But the NMAI has become far more than that. Its Indigenous designers, curators, and administrators, in part with funding from Native nations, have built a public space with locations in D.C. and Manhattan where everyone can learn about Native peoples—in all their diversity—as continuing nations with living cultures, as real human beings in the past, present, and future.