Volume 13, Number 1, Jan. 1991, p.9

A New Era in Museum - Native American Relations

by Elizabeth C. Welsh

Following years of hot debate and efforts to recognize a wide spectrum of viewpoints, the federal government passed legislation in November 1990 that will change practices in most U.S. museums and other institutions that have collections of Native American, Native Alaskan or Native Hawaiian cultural materials and human remains.

Discussion of concerns and of experiences pertaining to this new legislation--H.R. 5237, The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act--will help conservators approach this new era intelligently.

Native peoples have been given the right, under the new law, to obtain information from federally-supported institutions to learn what biological materials and artifacts from human burials, as well as what sacred objects and items deemed "cultural patrimony," are present in an institution's holdings. To make this information available, museums affected by H.R. 5237 will be preparing inventories listing all such items held, indicating cultural affiliations and the circumstances surrounding acquisition.

The law also mandates the return ("repatriation") to native peoples of some collection materials. Items for which an institution does not have "right of possession" must be released to legitimate claimants.

Related to these newly defined rights, but not part of the new legislation, is the fact that Native American groups are increasingly seeking to influence the way in which museums use and care for certain artifacts.

What does this new era in museum - Native American relations mean for conservators?

This is an exciting time of change as we face challenges to the established order. Conservators should prepare themselves to join others who are critically scrutinizing what have long been regarded as the rights and purposes of museum, university, and private collecting.

WAAC is exploring the possibility of a discussion panel at our Fall 1991 Annual Meeting to deepen our members' understanding of this subject and to provide a forum for presenting the experiences and concerns of individuals and institutions. Please get in touch with Elizabeth Welsh if you have thoughts, experiences, or any other contributions to make to a panel about this subject.

Elizabeth C. Welsh
WAAC Newsletter Editor
1213 W. San Miguel Avenue
Phoenix, Arizona 85013 602/433-0461

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