The Time for Repatriation and Homecomings

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In the January 24, 2018, issue of The New Yorker Magazine, an article caught my eye. It was titled “The Troubling Origins of the Skeletons in a New York Museum.” The article, written by Daniel A. Gross, focused on efforts to repatriate from the American Museum of Natural History in New York century-old bones belonging to victims of a genocide in Namibia.

The story of these bones is heart-wrenching and involves a complex web of bone collecting and exchange networks supported by many museums and anthropologists around the world. The Namibian skulls kept in a cardboard box at AMHN were the result of German colonial efforts to quell a rebellion in an area known at the time as German Southwest Africa. The colonialists forced thousands of Herero people into the desert and into concentration camps. More than 65-thousand Herero people died; another 10-thousand Nama and San men, women and children also were killed. Many were shot after the colonists issued an “extermination order.” This was believed to be the first genocide of the 20th century; a dry-run for the Germans’ establishment of concentration camps used for the Holocaust.

It feels unconscionable that “anthropological studies” justified the collection of the bones and artifacts of “primitive people,” while respectfully burying the bones of people of European descent. In the United States, this issue has been of major concern, and first championed by Native Americans, whose ancestral burial grounds were raided for centuries, without criminal prosecution or remorse. I reached out to John Haworth, Senior Executive Emeritus of the Smithsonian-National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)-New York, whom I interviewed last year for my blog, and asked him to share his perspective:.

John Haworth:  In my view, The New Yorker article articulates the complexity of the issues. In particular, it tracks the natural history museum practices from the 1800s to mid-19th century. As we now know, many errors were made in terms of collecting, research and exhibition practices.

Years ago, I visited the Peter the Great collection in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Kunstkamera Museum (established in 1727) is a respected institution focused on the science. Some of the scholars at this institution made the argument that given the advances in science, such as DNA analysis, it was important for institutions to have human remains and other artifacts available for future study. They seemed to believe that there would be medical and/or other scientific advances that might come from such study. However, the scientists who advocate for forensic study of cells, human remains, etc., don’t seem to be in alignment with the cultural and humanist world views, which remind us that these bones once belonged to a person; someone’s mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, or even a child, and are worthy of dignity and respect.

Over the years, I witnessed at close range the work of NMAI’s repatriation staff and how they engaged with Native communities. I believe that this is critically important—especially in terms of peace education and reconciliation work on a global level—for communities of origin to be involved in this important work. Indeed, facilitating the dialogue, conducting the research, and following through with the legal work is complex, requiring both skills and resources. Certainly, the article brought into focus some of the critical issues in this work, including the impact that it has on the descendants of the people whose bones have been collected.

The establishment of the National Museum of the American Indian by legislative act in 1989, which coincided with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, helped switch the conversation from an “outsider” perspective to an “insider” one. In other words, community-based perspectives were taken more seriously, not just the opinions of outsiders (e.g. anthropologists, archaeologists, art historians). The process became more of a community-informed, community-engaged perspective. Since NAGPRA set a standard, there were federal requirements that institutions had to follow. Although NAGPRA only applies to bones collected within the United States, nonetheless, I believe this was a very positive thing that helped bring about some of the changes in museum practices worldwide, as well as in the field of anthropology and other scholarly fields.

The descendants of the Hereo, Nama and San genocide have filed for reparations and repatriation in both the German and US courts. While their cases wind through the legal system, I believe it’s important that we all lend our voices to the call for global repatriation of the bones and cultural artifacts of all indigenous people, to allow for both burial and ceremonial homecomings in their countries and lands of origin. The repatriation of bones will foster long-overdue respect and dignity for cultures who have suffered indignities at the hands of pilferers. With our collective voices, we can change the course of history; we can and must do better.