Minnesota museums adapt to new federal rules regarding Native objects and remains

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"We have things in our collection that we can't display because they fall under the [NAGPRA] status. How do we get that across to the public? We landed on: How about an empty case?" The empty case at the Science Museum identifies sacred objects that have been in the collection that tribal consultants said were inappropriate to display.
Courtesy of Zach Vang, Science Museum of Minnesota

At the Science Museum in St. Paul, a display case has sat empty for years. A sign in the case says “Not on view” with three empty plinths. Their labels read “Drums,” “Burial Objects” and “Pipes and Pipestones.”

It’s at the entrance of the “We Move and We Stay" exhibition, which features objects from generations of Dakota and Ojibwe people.

The case’s labels also state that the Science Museum has displayed these objects in the past, as well as Native human remains as recently as the 1970s. The text invites visitors to provide feedback, asking: “Are there family or cultural objects you wouldn’t want included in an exhibit?”

The museum’s curator of archaeology, Ed Fleming, says the museum consulted with Native advisors who said that these were sacred objects that should not be on view for the public.

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The empty case is “to demonstrate that, yes, we have objects in the collection that qualify for NAGPRA, and we’re working with the tribes and consultants to identify those and to return those,” Fleming says. 

NAGPRA is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which was enacted into federal law in 1990.

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Part of the empty case display at the Science Museum in St. Paul.
Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News

On Jan. 12, 2024, updated NAGPRA regulations went into effect that streamlined and strengthened the process for the repatriation and display of Native ancestral human remains and objects. NAGPRA-qualifying objects include those of funerary, sacred or cultural patrimony significance, as defined by the tribes.

The new regulations will affect countless Minnesota tribes. NAGPRA now prioritizes the authority and knowledge of tribes and lineal descendants. 

It also impacts how Minnesota museums, universities, federal sites and other institutions that receive federal funding. They must now comply with updated rules about how they can display, provide research access to or repatriate Native human remains and objects in their collections.

“What the new regulations do is they bring us closer to the original intent, or spirit of the law,” says Jaime Arsenault, the tribal historic preservation officer and repatriation representative for the White Earth Band of Minnesota Chippewa. “The change in the regulations that highlight deference to Indigenous knowledge is really important, because Indigenous nations, they really are the ones who are able to best determine what is sacred to them.”

Historically, many institutions denied the requests of descendants and tribes by claiming that human remains or objects in their inventories were “culturally unidentifiable.”

The new regulations eliminate that designation and strengthen the authority and role of tribes by “requiring deference to the Indigenous knowledge of lineal descendants.” 

Museums and other institutes must “obtain free, prior and informed consent from lineal descendants” of the human remains or objects in their collection before displaying or providing access to.

“It’s very common for museums to be very sparse with the information regarding particular items that they have in their collections, or the communities that those items came from,” Arsenault says. “And that’s because historically, very little focus was on respecting boundaries and wishes of a community. Consent was not the focus of those doing the collecting.”

Arsenault says it’s also common “for museum records to contain mislabeled or otherwise incorrect information regarding items within their collection. I’ve lost count of the number of sacred items I’ve seen that are mislabeled as things like a tablecloth or gambling games, that type of stuff.”

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The Grand Portage National Monument is one of Minnesota's federal sites that must comply with NAGPRA.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

While some museums around the country have been rushing to shroud their Native displays to comply with the new regulations, like the Field Museum in Chicago, Fleming says the Science Museum was already in compliance.

“We all knew this was coming,” Fleming says. The empty display case dates back to circa 2015.

“I find the new regulations to be very helpful to the tribes,” Fleming says. “In fact, it removes some of the burdens of NAGPRA and shifts them to museums to make sure that we’re being proactive and that we’re not putting any speed bumps in the process.” 

Science Museum curatorial anthropology fellow Pejuta Haka Red Eagle (Oglala Lakota na Wahpekute and Wahpetunwan Dakota) researches the museum’s collections and does outreach with communities to raise awareness about collections. She says she has visited one of the displays at the Field Museum in Chicago that has now been shrouded.

Native objects were on display in a cabinet of curiosities-type exhibit. It was an uncomfortable experience as a Native person, she says.

“It feels really disrespectful because it’s done in a way that Native people are the oddities,” Red Eagle says. “The Science Museum is completely different.”

She points to the guidance of the museum’s Indigenous Roundtable as imperative. Fleming says it was started in the seventies as the American Indian Advisory committee, and it was the first of its kind in the nation.

The roundtable currently has 11 members, including local artist Rebekah Crisanta de Ybarraexecutive director of the Minnesota Museum of American Art Kate Beane and Upper Sioux Community Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Samantha Odegard and University of Minnesota American Indian Studies professor Vincent M. Diaz.

“Native Americans in museums are not very common,” Red Eagle says. “They need us in every part of a museum: outreach and programming, or working with a collection, exhibit development.”

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Weisman Art Museum director Alejandra Peña.
Courtesy of the Weisman Art Museum

At the Weisman Art Museum (WAM) in Minneapolis, Director Alejandra Peña says that the university museum is already in compliance. 

“We have been on a really long period of consultation with the tribes, following their advice on what to do, how to handle all of these artifacts — not just the ancestors — the belongings, everything,” says Peña, who joined the museum in 2021. “There’s really nothing within the new regulations that affect us.”

Peña is heading one of the largest repatriation efforts in the country for an inventory of thousands of Mimbres objects and the human remains of more than 150 individuals

For many years, and under different leadership, the Weisman was not compliant with NAGPRA. As the TRUTH Report states:

“Rather than cooperate with MIAC on NAGPRA compliance, the museum instead filed its own summary which neither identified any items as burial-associated nor mentioned their association with the ancestors at MIAC. While MIAC appropriately engaged in Tribal consultations and filed its own inventory in 2002, the WAM director [Lyndel King] refused to collaborate, and the museum failed to respond adequately to Tribal inquiries regarding the collection, as required by NAGPRA.”

The Weisman is now in the early stages of a yearslong repatriation consultation process with the tribes of the Southwest who are descendants of the Mimbres people. 

“As a result of the consultation process and conversation with the tribes of the Southwest, we have made adjustments in how and where the ancestors and their belongings were stored,” Peña tells MPR News. ”This is precisely the intention of the new NAGPRA regulations, to cede authority back to the legitimate owners of these cultural materials.”

The Minneapolis Institute of Art had Mimbres funerary items in its possession until 1959.
MPR News file photo

The human remains and objects were taken during archaeology digs by University of Minnesota professor Albert Jenks and a team of students in the 1920s. “Jenks secured funding from the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts (Mia) to sponsor his participation,” states a 2023 federal NAGPRA inventory document

The human remains and objects taken during the original excavations have spread out across the U.S. In addition to the Weisman and University of Minnesota, this Mimbres repatriation effort includes the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, Science Museum of Minnesota, University of Colorado Museum, Denver Art Museum, Milwaukee Public Museum, Yale Peabody Museum and Cleveland Museum of Art.

Peña says none of these, or any other NAGPRA qualifying items, are on display at the Weisman. 

According to the inventory document, Mia had several of the Mimbres funerary items in its possession until 1959, when they were transferred to the University of Minnesota.

As for any other items in Mia’s collection that are regulated by NAGPRA, the Minneapolis Institute of Art provided a statement:

“We are evaluating the updates to NAGPRA to determine how they affect the museum’s holdings of Native American objects and any steps we may need to take to ensure we remain in compliance.”

At the Minnesota Historical Society, Brenda Raney says the NAGPRA regulations affect the entire organization whose sites include the Mill City Museum, Minnesota History Center, Historic Fort Snelling and the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post. Raney is the MNHS senior director of preservation and outreach.

“We are certainly reacting to it,” Raney says. ”We take NAGPRA and our compliance with the law very seriously.”

Native Americans Sacred Pipe Carving
Pipestone is one of the items the Science Museum took off display because of its sacred significance to tribes. The Pipestone National Monument in southwestern Minnesota is one of the federal sites in the state that must comply with NAGPRA.
Jessie Wardarski | AP

MNHS has a NAGPRA committee made up of internal staff that was first formed in the late 1980s, Raney says. The MNHS provided a statement that its Indian Advisory Committee has representation from the 11 federally recognized tribes in Minnesota, as well as an Indian Advisory Committee NAGPRA and archaeology subcommittee with Dakota and Ojibwe representation.

“They have been taking that seriously,” says Anton Treuer, a member of the MNHS executive council and a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University.

Treuer also had an experience with NAGPRA and repatriation when he was the executive director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State. He discovered human remains and sacred items in the building. 

“It is intense, and it is laborious, and it’s tedious, and much more so than it should be,” says Treuer of the repatriation and disposition process. The new regulations will help, he says. But, “it should also not have to be the case that we are like, ‘thank you so much great white father for finally returning 1 percent of the things that you never should have taken.’”

While the new regulations were announced and open to review for public comment back in 2022, the updated regulations were issued Dec. 12, 2023, and went into effect Jan. 12.

“Which isn’t a ton of time, especially at that time of year, to review thoroughly and put everything in place necessary to be in compliance if you felt like you weren’t,” Raney says. “There are some pieces of it that we are absolutely looking at, and making sure that we update our own internal policies to reflect the new regs, but other museums might have been in different places about how ready they were to adapt to changes.”

MNHS had Native human remains in its collection, Raney says, but they were transferred into the care of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC) in the 1990s. The University of Minnesota also transferred the human remains in its possession to MIAC decades ago. (ProPublica has a searchable nationwide NAGPRA database including institutions in Minnesota.) 

At the Weisman, Peña says that these new regulations should be a surprise to no one in the field. She says the work of repatriation and NAGPRA compliance is expensive but imperative.

“A lot of institutions are now claiming they don’t have the resources,” Peña says. “I find it unfortunate that there were the resources when it was time to take, but we don’t have the resources when it’s time to give back.”

A cyclist passes the Mill City Museum.
The Mill City Museum is one of the Minnesota Historical Society sites that must comply with NAGRPA.
MPR News file photo

Only museums and institutions that receive federal funding must comply with NAGPRA. That includes, Arsenault says, any federal COVID funding. Private institutions or collectors are not required to comply.

“It’s important to also note that there is nothing preventing individuals from contacting the designated repatriation representatives of tribes and having those conversations as well,” Arsenault says.

She recommends private individuals and institutions reach out to tribes through the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer directory.

And even for public institutions, Arsenault  says that NAGPRA regulations are the “bare minimum.” Even with the new regulations, she says there is a disproportionate burden on tribes.

“Sadly, the reality really is that tribes in Minnesota seeking the return of their ancestors or cultural items will end up consulting with museums and academic institutions and countless other institutions across the country and around the world with very little funding and external support,” she adds. “So, you know, it is a challenge.”

Arsenault has worked with institutions with varying success locally and across the country and world on repatriation because objects from the White Earth Nation were not only taken by Minnesota institutions.

“The museums that are working most successfully in terms of implementing NAGPRA are those that recognize that NAGPRA is just the starting place in terms of what’s possible, in terms of the respect that can be shown or the collaboration and reconciliation that can occur when you're truly working with tribal nations,” she says.

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Part of the empty display case at the Science Museum's "We Move We Stay" exhibition which features objects from generations of Dakota and Ojibwe people. "Some individuals feel like yes, we should be elevating [pipestone] and show Native kids this art, and others are like no, it's pipestone, it's a sacred stone," says Ed Fleming, the museum's curator of archaeology.
Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.