When the indigenous song collection group began our research, we found that the Smithsonian funded much of Densmore’s work. As I so clearly and forcefully lined out in my last blog post, I personally believe that Densmore’s work, funded by the Smithsonian, was a form of cultural colonialism. Much of my research here was inspired by the article “Decolonizing Ethnographic Documentation: A Critical History of the Early Museum Catalogs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History” by Hannah Turner.
Within her conclusion, she states:
Museums have become contentious and even harmful places for Indigenous peoples, and these communities have actively sought to retrieve and reconnect with lost objects and lost knowledge. A decolonial approach calls into question the seemingly stable and unchangeable museum categories and knowledge organization. 1
So, how is the Smithsonian, specifically the National Museum of the American Indian, attempting to write these wrongs? The National Museum of the American Indian holds the “one of the most extensive collections of Native American arts and artifacts in the world—approximately 266,000 catalog records (825,000 items) representing over 12,000 years of history and more than 1,200 indigenous cultures throughout the Americas.” 2 George Gustav Heye funded the majority of the current collection by simply buying Native American artifacts. I was fascinated by the framing of Heye on the official website; they take such care in framing much of their work, yet they do not acknowledge any harm done by Heye as a “collector.” However, the website has significant information concerning repatriation.
Repatriation activities at the Smithsonian Institution are governed by the National Museum of the American Indian Act (NMAIA), 20 U.S.C. §80q (Public Law 101–185), as amended by the NMAI Act Amendment of 1996 (Public Law 104–278). The NMAIA requires the Smithsonian to repatriate Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony from the collections to federally recognized tribes in the United States that are culturally affiliated with the items upon request. Two of the Smithsonian’s museums, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) conduct repatriation activities for their respective collections in accordance with their own policies and procedures.
At the NMAI, the following are categories eligible for repatriation:
Funerary Objects (Associated and Unassociated Funerary Objects)
Objects of Cultural Patrimony
Illegally Acquired Items 3
In our final project, we hope to outline repatriation as a concept on our website, and this information provides a strong outline of what is feasibly possible, and actually happening within the realm of repatriation of Native American artifacts and what we might actually begin to do with Densmore’s recordings.
3 “History of the Collections”.
“A Step-by-Step Guide through the Repatriation Process.” National Museum of the American Indian. https://americanindian.si.edu/sites/1/files/pdf/repatriation/NMAI-Repatriation-Guidelines-2020.pdf
“History of the Collections.” National Museum of the American Indian. https://americanindian.si.edu/explore/collections/history
“Repatriation.” National Museum of the American Indian. https://americanindian.si.edu/explore/repatriation
Turner, Hannah. “Decolonizing Ethnographic Documentation: A Critical History of the Early Museum Catalogs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.” Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 53, no. 5-6 (2015): 658–676.