The Democrat and Chronicle newspaper of Rochester, New York, reports on the bittersweet story of preserved wampum belts in the U.S. National Museum of the American Indian, part of the Smithsonian Institution.

The paper recounts the experience of Rick Hill, who as a young Native activist in the early 1970s, wanted to photograph the Iroquois wampum belts at the Heye Museum in New York City. He was told that he couldn’t see the precious objects that came from his own people unless he paid for the armed guards that would accompany him.

Years later the Heye Museum became part of the Museum of the American Indian. And Hill became the top curator there, with access to all of its huge collection. He decided he wouldn’t look at the wampum belts until he could view them as they were intended: in a ceremony inside an Iroquois longhouse.

Hill finally saw the belts last fall in the Onondaga longhouse, south of Syracuse, N.Y. But most of the elders he had hoped would explain the belts and their ceremonies had died.

While museums took these objects into their storehouses and displays to preserve them, keeping them away from the people who understand their significance “almost guarantees they will be lost,” Hill said.

Hill, a Tuscarora, now is head of the Haudenosaunee Standing Committee on Burial Rules and Regulation. His job is to represent the Iroquois in negotiating with museums, universities and other institutions which are required to comply with a federal U.S. law on returning human remains and artifacts to Native nations.

The law has caused hundreds of skeletal remains and thousands of burial objects to be returned to the Iroquois in the Rochester area. Museums arid Native American nations are negotiating over countless numbers of other remains, burial objects and sacred or culturally significant items.

The museum world has struggled with this issue, said Kate Bennett, president of the Rochester Museum & Science Center. “Many of the early archaeologists felt they were working quite closely with the Native community,” she said.

But she wondered why it didn’t occur to them that excavating Native American graves might be as objectionable to the descendants of those people as it would be to the people whose ancestors are buried in white cemeteries.

Bennett said that while museum staff has felt a sense of loss when turning over large collections of remains and objects, some good has come of the process. Museum exhibits on Native Americans now rely much more on input from Native Americans.

Although the federal repatriation law — the Native American Grave Protection Act — went into effect in 1990, many museums have just started to return objects.

…While Britain clings to stolen cultural booty While the United States may have seen the light regarding Native cultural artifacts, Britain is refusing to lift its head out of the Victorian mud. The venerable British Museum in London says it will not part with a 19th century Kwakwaka’wakw mask that natives on Vancouver Island want returned to its rightful home.

Writing in the Victoria Times-Colonist, Jack Knox suggests that perhaps the Kwakwaka’wakw people should go over to England and swipe the Crown Jewels. That would give them something to swap for the mask, Knox writes.

Not that the 19th century ceremonial mask means that much to the Brits. After all, they’ve got it stuck in the basement somewhere, down with the canning jars and camping supplies.

But they do care about the Elgin Marbles, and the Ethiopian Ark of the Covenant carvings, and all the other bits and friezes whose return is now being demanded by their homelands. If the British Museum gave the mask back, it would have to give a lot of stuff back.

And that would run counter to the museum’s mission of displaying the wonder of the world’s cultures to the millions of people who pass through its doors each year.

So the museum remains the last holdout, the only institution on Earth to flat out refuse to return to the Kwakwaka’wakw one of the objects reluctantly surrendered under Canada’s notorious anti-potlatch law.

It’s a story that goes back to the 1880s, when Ottawa was intent on assimilating Indians into white society. It saw the potlatch, with its pageantry and rituals handed down from generation to generation, as integral to native culture — and therefore a pothole on the road to progress — so banned the ceremony.

In 1921, a Kwakwaka’wakw man named Dan Cranmer held a potlatch on Village Island, way off between the mainland coast and northeastern Vancouver Island, far — he thought — from the prying eyes of the Indian agent and the police. But 45 people got busted and were charged with such crimes as dancing and receiving gifts. About half of them did two to three months at Oakalla prison. Twenty-two others had their sentences suspended — on the condition that their entire tribes turn over their potlatch paraphernalia, which they did.

The masks, whistles, rattles and other confiscated goods were eventually scattered all over the place. Many pieces landed in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and what is now the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. Some objects made their way to the University of B.C. George Heye of New York bought 33 items, which wound up in the National Museum of the American Indian.

But after the potlatch law fell off the books in 1951, the Kwakwaka’wakw began campaigning for the return of their treasures. Gradually, the artifacts began to trickle home. In the 1970s, the National Museum of Man returned much of what has become known as the Potlatch Collection, now displayed in the U’Mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay and the Kwakiutl Museum in Cape Mudge on Quadra Island. The Royal Ontario Museum turned over its artifacts in 1988, while the National Museum of the American Indian began its repatriation process by surrendering nine items in 1994.

Only the British Museum, holder of that single transformation mask – a crest that opens up to reveal a human head — balked. In a 1996 letter to the U’Mista Cultural Society, the London institution turned down a request to return the object, citing the British Museum Act of 1963, which specifically prohibits it from giving up its artifacts. The British Museum is no more anxious to give up the mask today than it was in 1996. The museum’s director says his duty is clear. “My job is to preserve the collection we have, not to remove objects,” said Dr. Robert Anderson in a telephone interview from London last week. “My job is also to arrange for the presentation of world cultures to the five million people a year who come here.” And he repeated the convenient truth that the British Museum Act won’t let him turn over the mask. “I would in fact be breaking British law.” That doesn’t sit well with the U’Mista centre’s Andrea Sanborn: “If it’s against their law to return it, it’s against our law for them to have it.” She says there’s a paper trail showing the mask should never have been sold in the first place. “That property was supposed to be held by the Canadian government,” she said. “Basically, they’re in possession of stolen property.” What’s in a name?

When the missionaries first went north to the frozen land now called Nunavut, reports the Washington Post, they could not understand why the people they met, the Inuit, had no last names. None of this made sense to the people who came north believing that the Inuit needed to be saved and placed in artificial communities. So the missionaries and government workers set about “correcting” a social system that had been in place for thousands of years.

Government practices required that the Inuit be sorted into a bureaucratic system that would provide some accountability. So, they were first given numbers, to be worn on tags around their necks. Later, they were told to take surnames. And as they were moved into towns, they were discouraged from practicing their religion and culture.

Now, decades after, the Inuit are reclaiming much of what was lost, including their names. Hundreds of Inuit in the new territory of Nunavut are going to court to correct old misspellings and to finally, officially cast off the numbers. For many, it is an act of reclaiming an identity that was nearly wiped out.

“Names are a very important part of Inuit culture. Every name has a definition,” said Peter Irniq, the commissioner of Nunavut. “We take back our culture and our names.” Traditional Inuit names reflect all aspects of what is important in Inuit culture: environment, landscape, kinship, animals and birds, spirits.

“People could have a name like Tulugaq, for raven,” said Irniq, whose name means son. “A lot of people are named Nauja, for sea gull. A lot of people are named Amaruq, wolf.” Others are named after seals or caribou.

In traditional society, the Inuit believed that spirits of the dead continued to live. Newborns were often named after a dead person, and treated as if they possessed the spirit of the one who was gone; they were addressed as “mother” or “father,” as the departed person had been. “We name people so that the deceased may live forever,” Irniq said. His mother, for instance, named three children after his father.

All of this was confusing to the people who arrived from the south. So in the early 1920s, they decided that each Inuit needed an identity that the government could understand. They passed out numbers, carved on dog tags. Most of the numbers began with the letter E, meaning East. From that day forward, each Inuit would carry what they called an “Eskimo” number.

Akaka Sataa recalled the day government workers appeared in his community and counted the people there. He was the 37th person they pointed to. “When they got to me, they gave me number E7-37,” said Sataa, who was born on the land outside the community of Kimmirut 84 years ago.

At the same time, missionaries were establishing churches and the Christian religion in the north. The Inuit were often made to feel guilty for believing in shamanism, people here say; many took Christian first names to show they had put those beliefs behind them.

In the 1970s, the Canadian government officials went to every part of the Arctic to decree that people adopt surnames, which were not part of the Inuit tradition. Project Surname, as it was known, prompted confusion and resentment.

Many of the E numbers were thrown out as people took last names. But the government workers, many of whom did not speak the local language, Inuktitut, often rendered the names in spellings that had little to do with actual pronunciation.

In Inuktitut, there are no sounds for e, b or w, and yet those letters show up in many names as rendered years ago by people from the south. “When I was born, a priest spelled my name Ernick,” said Irniq. “I was never proud of Ernik or Erneck,” other variations that were used.

Things began to change with the April 1, 1999, establishment of the Nunavut territory. The Inuit became one of the first indigenous people to retrieve territory based on ancient claims. With it came a sense of renewed pride.

At the Nunavut Court of Justice, names are being changed. About 400 people throughout the territory have done so. The court processes the requests for free, in recognition that the government shouldn’t exact a fee to correct a problem it created.

Shani Watts, Nunavut Court of Justice administrator, said many of the people coming to the court simply wanted to get rid of E numbers that are still listed on government papers.

People who have Christian names have generally kept them, and there’s been no movement to drop surnames. What many people who come to the court want to change is the official spelling of those surnames, to something that sounds right to the Inuit ear.

“The Inuit were degraded,” Aariak said. “The missionaries never thought to understand the existing culture.”