The state museum considers much of its Native American artifacts ‘culturally unidentifiable’


ALBANY — More than 30 years after Congress passed a law requiring museums to return all things removed from Native American graves to the descendants of those buried, the New York State Museum has returned just 29% of its ancestry collection and Native American grave goods to their nations of origin, calling the others “culturally unidentifiable.”

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act outlines requirements and processes for museums and federal agencies to return objects and artifacts removed from Native American graves, including soil, pottery, and ancestral remains, to lineal descendants, nations culturally affiliated Native Americans or Native Hawaiian organizations.

Institutions must also provide information about the items to parties with standing and, when presented with a valid claim, ensure that the items are disposed of or repatriated. When Congress passed the law in 1990, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that it would take 10 years to complete the effort.

The 891 ancestors and 2,682 grave goods associated with Native American nations in the possession of the New York State Museum are listed as “culturally unidentifiable,” meaning the museum has determined that available information “does not reasonably demonstrate a relationship of shared group identity with a present-day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization,” according to a National Park Service definition.

If an object is deemed “culturally unidentifiable,” it is not subject to federal regulation and the museum does not have to ensure its repatriation.

New York has the third highest number of ancestors and associated grave goods – or AFOs – in need of repatriation of any state after California and Illinois. The Museum of the State of New York in Albany holds the third most unrepatriated item of any federally funded institution in New York.

Under current law, the New York State Museum must make an inventory of all such artifacts and ancestors in its possession, but the museum is not required to do anything to repatriate such artifacts and ancestors. beyond responding to consultation requests from Native American nations.

Jenna Macaulay, an attorney who represents the Haudenosaunee, a confederacy in New York, said the Haudenosaunee Nation – better known as the Iroquois – made “too many claims to count” at the museum. Albany.

To determine if it has an artifact or an ancestor of a nation, Haudenosaunee representatives examine them in person with museum officials. Museum officials then determine if they have enough information to associate the object or ancestor with that nation.

Of the New York State Museum’s “culturally unidentifiable” collections, 84% came from sites in New York. Macaulay said it’s “very likely” that objects and ancestors recovered in New York have Haudenosaunee ancestry.

The law does not apply to grave goods associated with ancestors that the museum calls “culturally unidentifiable.” Joe Heath, general counsel for the Onondaga Nation, a Haudenosaunee nation, said he thinks the museum is using its “lack of proper record keeping” to its advantage.

“There needs to be more oversight,” Heath said. “There is no excuse for this.”

In 2010, the US Department of the Interior expanded federal regulations to provide museums and federal agencies with a voluntary pathway for the repatriation of “culturally unidentifiable” ancestors. Twelve years later, about 80% of museums, including the New York State Museum, have not completed the effort.

State Department of Education spokeswoman Emile DeSantis said the museum’s goal was to repatriate all culturally unidentifiable remains and grave goods, but she declined to say why it didn’t. not complete the voluntary effort.

Macaulay said the museum has cooperated by regularly consulting with the Haudenosaunee Nation, but isn’t doing enough to fill in the gaps in its record keeping.

“There’s just an information gap that we can’t fill,” Macaulay said. “This label of ‘culturally unidentifiable’ leaves us in a gray area where we cannot pursue repatriation because we don’t know where the ancestors came from.”

Macaulay said the “culturally identifiable” designation is “overused.”

“I don’t mean it’s a scapegoat, but I mean, if a museum determines that and then stops taking action to identify them, there’s nothing else we can do, and that’s what led to frustration over the years,” she said. noted.

The Department of the Interior is considering an update to 1990 federal regulations that would require the New York State Museum to consult with “culturally unidentifiable” ancestors, objects and artifacts, and decide whether they are culturally affiliated or geographically affiliated within 2.5 years after a final rule is published.

The National Park Service estimates that between 90 and 95 percent of ancestors who were not recorded under federal law would be geographically affiliated under the proposed revision, allowing Native American nations to request and repatriate items previously” culturally unidentifiable” based solely on geographic information. .

“It’s clear that ‘culturally unidentifiable’ is a barrier to repatriation,” Melanie O’Brien, national program manager at the National Park Service, said in a consultation session in August.

O’Brien said the review likely won’t be in effect for a year.

Under the revised regulations, if the Museum of the State of New York does not complete the regulatory process or refuses to repatriate ancestors, artifacts or objects from known geographic locations, it could face civil penalty.

“Bones just don’t show up on the doorstep of a museum,” Macaulay said. “They come into acquisition one way or another. They need accurate record keeping to show where they came from.

“If they have a record of articles and they tell us they’re not culturally affiliated because they can’t identify a time period or place they’re from, then they need to be diligent reasonable and find out where these items came from,” she added.

Macaulay said she was confident that changing the laws surrounding federal regulations would encourage the museum to meet its obligations.

“Museums and institutions need to understand what they hold,” Macaulay said. “These are not exhibitions. These are our people. This is our own cultural heritage that is still used today and is of utmost importance among the Haudenosaunee.

Ariel Gans is a reporter for Medill News Service.


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