When the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago hands over the bones of 156 Haida people to a tribe in British Columbia in October, it will become one of only three major museums to extend the U.S. repatriation law outside the coun-try.
“It’s huge,” said Karenne Wood, repatriation coordinator at the Association on American Indian Affairs in Washington. “They are going beyond what the law requires.”
Like facilities across the country, the Field has returned dozens of remains and items requested by Native American tribes in the United States. But the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act does not require that museums turn over materials to international tribes, and that’s what sets apart the Field’s cooperation with the Haida.
“We didn’t have to return these” remains, said Jonathan Haas, the museum’s field archeologist. “But we’re not interested in a fight over ownership. We are interested in doing the right thing in regard to human remains. The principle of returning human beings to descendants is a good principle.”
Tribal organizations and others are praising the Field for focusing on the spirit instead of the letter of the law.
“Native cultures don’t stop at the U.S. border,” said James Pepper Henry, assistant director for community services of the National Museum of the American Indian, part of the Smithsonian Institution. “The Field Museum is taking a big step for the museum world because it is recognizing the rights of human beings. It’s a humanitarian gesture, and hopefully it will set an example for other museums.”
The Haida bones being returned to Canada are mostly skulls dug up during an expedition in the Queen Charlotte Islands in the early 1900s, Haas said. The Field had collected and held onto the bones as part of an effort to understand cultures that were believed to be near extinction, Haas said. The remains were never on display.
“We believe there is a strong spiritual link to these ancestral remains,”
said Andrea Bell, a spokeswoman for the Haida. “They were stolen from their graves. We do not think they should be held any longer in a museum.”
The Field Museum’s efforts to work with the Canadian tribe come a few months after more than a dozen prominent American museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, announced they would not approve all requests for antiquities from their country of origin.
While the museums have no dispute with requests by Nazi survivors or Native Americans, they take issue with claims for artifacts acquired centuries ago, when ethical standards were far different from today’s.
Henry said standards that apply to indigenous people in the United States should be applied worldwide. “A lot of communities on a worldwide basis consider repatriation of items for their cultural revitalization,” he said. “We learn more of the culture having returned those items than we do seeing them sit on a shelf at a museum.”
The U.S. repatriation law requires that museums return any of four types of artifacts if requested by the 564 federally recognized Native American tribes. They include human remains, funeral objects, communal property or sacred or ceremonial materials. Of major museums, only the Smithsonian and the Museum of Natural History in New York had previously turned over items to indigenous people from other countries.