JAIC 1992, Volume 31, Number 1, Article 4 (pp. 23 to 29)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1992, Volume 31, Number 1, Article 4 (pp. 23 to 29)

COLLABORATIVE STRATEGIES FOR THE PRESERVATION OF NORTH AMERICAN INDIAN MATERIAL CULTURE

BRUCE BERNSTEIN



2 WORKING WITH COMMUNITIES

A culture has an ethical right to participate in a museum's interpretation of its community for museum visitors. Because living Indian people have generally not been considered a resource for anthropology collections, museums might continue to hold objects with little, or no, or incorrect catalog information, and perhaps against the wishes of a community. For decades, museums have paid non-Indian consultants to tell us more about collections, yet we have rarely afforded Native Americans this same opportunity.

When consultation takes place, good things happen. Museum of New Mexico policy requires archaeological collaboration by having Native observers arranging consultations with Indian communities, prohibiting removal of human remains and associated funerary objects, and requiring prior approval for destructive analysis. While excavating a highway right-of-way project in 1990, museum archaeologists found a wall mural dating from 1250–1325 A. D. The mural posed a potentially sensitive issue for living Pueblo peoples because of their current use of murals in a religious context. Our contact with the All-Indian Pueblo Council was positive and they approved our conservation plans and offered to place the mural on display at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. In a recent collaboration with Taos Pueblo, museum archaeologists were allowed to study and photograph burials and funerary objects. Through extensive documentation and correspondence, they shared findings with Taos that are not usually found in published or unpublished reports. In today's climate, human remains are sometimes immediately reinterred, without providing archaeologists the opportunity to study them.

An example of the museum's proactive work is our inquiries over the past two years to tribal governments asking them to decide on the disposition of human remains from their lands held in our collections. In 1966 tribal members worked with the museum on a highway right-of-way excavation, but it wasn't until 1991, as part of our repatriation and cultural review process, that these people were afforded the opportunity to decide what to do with the two human skeletons and funerary objects removed 25 years before. Tribal policy clearly tells us that the museum has interrupted the dead's journey. These remains, which were removed from tribal lands, are the tribe's property and are to be returned. This particular pueblo's decision stands in contrast to those of five others that wish us to retain the human remains in the museum's collections. These and other southwestern tribes often wish to avoid the possibility of “bringing a misfortune” to their communities through the return of desecrated remains and objects. This misfortune could possibly occur because the dead have already been properly sent on to another world and there may be no cultural mechanism for their return to the community after the fact, or because there is no way of knowing whether the bones being offered for reburial are the remains of a good or a bad person (e.g., a witch). Ultimately repatriation can be difficult for the tribes, too.

In recent negotiations with the Pueblo of Zuni, a review of more than 400 objects resulted in the return of 10 items of Zuni manufacture and 16 replicas made for museum exhibits. These objects were not on exhibit nor were they accessible to researchers due to current sensibilities; therefore the museum “lost” nothing by their return, but gained a fuller understanding of our Zuni holdings. Several other types of objects that had also been classified as “sensitive” for more than 60 years were shown to Zuni religious leaders, and their unanimous consensus was that neither the so-called “sacred” pots nor the fetish collections should have any restrictions on use. They encouraged us to allow researchers to have access to these objects. As it turned out, their comments concerning the pots helped piece together the true story of our museum's collection of fake “sacred” pots.

The Pueblo of Zuni has also adjusted its thinking. Only a few years ago photographs of the Ahayu:da (War God) were not appreciated in newspapers and other publicity. But about a year ago a photo was published and a private collector saw it. He hadn't realized what he had in his possession and contacted the Pueblo of Zuni to repatriate the War God. Subsequently, the Pueblo of Zuni is now widely publicizing each War God return through press releases, newspapers, and by asking museums to speak openly about their involvement.


Copyright 1992 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works