I am a museum lover, admittedly. Yet, certain items simply do not belong in museums. Enter repatriation, the process of returning an item, usually of spiritual or symbolic significance, to its place and owner of origin. For the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, this means the long-overdue return of stolen human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony to tribes across the country and beyond.
It is clear colonial powers and the United States have done irreparable harm to Native people, their land and their cultural heritage in a multiplicity of ways. Repatriating stolen remains and items to tribes cannot undo the damage done, but to Jacquetta Swift (Comanche/Fort Sill Apache), the repatriation manager at the National Museum of the American Indian, it is a step towards reconciliation.
The topic of cultural patrimony is something I personally find both intriguing and essential, so I was more than thrilled to use this column as an excuse to reach out to Swift to learn more about what she does. Below is the conversation we had on this topic, which has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Maddie Finn (MF):Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. Could you introduce yourself and what you do?
Jacquetta Swift (JS):My name is Jackie Swift. Well, actually, my real name is Jacquetta Swift, but it took me until the second grade to learn how to spell that — Jackie is much easier to say and spell. I am Comanche and Fort Sill Apache from Oklahoma, and I am the repatriation manager for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.
I kind of stumbled into [this line of work], honestly. I worked doing cultural events in New York City and had become friends with some of the folks on the NMAI staff. From that, I went on to other museum contract positions in public programs, research and film and video. And then, after going back to school, I came back for the opening of the [NMAI] in 2003. I was in the department of community services, in which I oversaw three departments. One of those was repatriation. We’ve reorganized — oh, how many times? I’ve lost count.
But when it came down to it, there was nothing that’s been more personally or professionally fulfilling than the work that we do in repatriation. A while ago I was slated to move [from the repatriation department] to the education department, but I took our director to lunch and basically begged him to stay.
MF: So, let’s get down to the very basics. What exactly is repatriation?
JS: There are two repatriation laws in the U.S. The first one was specific to us: the NMAI Act of 1989, which was the very first law in the U.S. that called for the return of Native human remains and their funerary items. The next year there was another law that applied to all other entities that received federal funding and have collections that may have items eligible for repatriation in the U.S. That was NAGPRA — the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
Basically, the two laws mirror each other, but the NMAI Act only applies to the Smithsonian, and NAGPRA applies to all other entities such as museums, agencies or universities who receive federal funding and stewardship of Native American collections. In a nutshell, what they both do is mandate the return of Native human remains and certain cultural items back to the tribes upon their claim as assessed. I would like to think that repatriation is a way of correcting a historical wrong with the hopes that it can provide, or in some small way lead to, a cultural healing and reconciliation within a community.
It’s a helpful distinction for people to understand that the items that are being repatriated are not necessarily seen as art. They might be beautiful in what they are, but they were purposeful in what they were intended to do. When we return those items under a specific category, for example, items claimed as sacred or cultural patrimony, they are intended to be put back into practice so the cultures can perpetuate. Maybe that item is too fragile to do what it is intended to do — sometimes the mere presence of it is enough; it is imbued with the spirit of what it is supposed to do.
Depending on what tribe you are talking about and what [the item’s] purpose is/was, its purpose might need to be fulfilled by ceremonially retiring the item, sometimes that may mean through its destruction. It might need to ceremonially go through that process. That’s something to think about. There is the Western concept of “oh, it’s art!” But it is not necessarily “art” to the tribes it is [being repatriated to].
MF: Thank you for that definition and crucial distinction. Let’s deep dive into the process of repatriation. How does that function for the NMAI on a logistical level?
JS: So, we have a two-pronged approach. We have a tribal claims-based process, where a tribe will assert a claim, and then we also have proactive cases, where we assert the research process. Those typically are centered on human remains and associated funerary object cases.
As part of the museum’s founding philosophy, it was the museum’s position that there be no human remains under our stewardship, but rather they should all be returned to their communities of origin. Later, a board member, Bobbie Conner, expanded on that position to say that all human remains deserve a respectful reburial, regardless if they are Native or not. That statement really resonated with me on a personal level and underscored the basic human decency we should all try to live by, regardless of what the law says, to do and be better human beings.
MF: I suppose my next question would be how did those remains become under your stewardship?
JS: Our collection was established by a very wealthy New York businessman — his name was George Gustav Heye. [Heye was the collector and director for the former Museum of the American Indian, whose collection later became the basis for the NMAI]. In the early and mid-1900s, there was a lot of excavation and expedition under the Museum of the American Indian.
The NMAI Act was in 1989. All of that work — including expeditions and excavations, donations, and trades, especially when dealing with sensitive items like human remains or funerary objects — was done prior to our museum and what we are working under now. One of the things we [the NMAI] are really conscientious of is that when we do acquire new collection items, we make sure those items are not likely to fall under one of the categories eligible for repatriation.
So, in relation to your question, we don’t do excavations or expeditions or anything like that. We don’t do that kind of work like what they did back in the 1950s and earlier. The stuff that was done in the early 20th century. Things were done then that we just would simply not do now.
MF: It seems like a lot has changed. Repatriation is obviously a big part of the NMAI, but within other museums, is repatriation a fully supported priority?
JS: When you talk about museum politics, maybe it’s more like museum culture? There was a fear being stoked by many that repatriation legislation meant that tribes were going to show-up with U-Hauls and take everything away. The reality is that repatriation has only impacted a small fraction of museum collections, including the NMAI. So really, it’s about the museum culture.
If you look at this from a historical perspective, these two laws are human rights legislation. This is an attempt to address and correct a historical wrong. It’s not just about giving items back, it’s about forming relationships. You can tell a better story; you can understand an item better in its context if you have those relationships with tribes and individuals.
So, we’ve got the two laws. If you are within the Smithsonian it is just [the NMAI] and the Museum of Natural History that fall under the NMAI Act. If you receive any amount of federal funding, and if you have items in your collection that might be repatriatable, then you are obligated to follow NAGPRA.
We did an assessment this summer to look under NAGPRA to see who is going above and beyond the law and who is just following the letter. It is very telling in who you are as a museum if you are following the letter of the law. That’s the bare minimum. If you go above and beyond the law, you are signaling to tribes that it is less difficult in some way to address these categories of claim.
I am quite proud of our policy because we have lowered that threshold in a plethora of ways. We do international repatriation — that is outside of the law. We have lowered the standard of evidence. Our definitions have been changed to be more accommodating to tribes seeking repatriation. We look at ourselves as a cultural museum more than anything else. With that it’s culture; people; relationships. It makes sense.
MF: That leads to my next question: how can museums be more culturally conscious about their presentation? What have you seen that is effective in presenting art within its correct context — especially in a larger museum that has items from lots of different tribes, peoples and locations?
JS: For us, it’s almost our bumper sticker in the repatriation department: “All roads lead to consultation.” It’s as simple as that. How can you tell a story about another’s culture unless you know from them, unless you are able to hear it from their perspective? There are things that are published now and in historical documents that may not tell the full story — they may tell an aspect of the story or a falsehood.
The fact is that once you develop a relationship with an individual, you have that trust, and it’s reciprocal. You’re able to trust in that individual telling you the right story, and they trust your ability to convey that in a repatriation report. It’s a great honor to be able to do that.
MF:Thank you so much for your time and all that you do! Are you guys open right now?
JS: We are! Now is probably a good time because there are not a lot of people going to museums. It’s a nice time to have a lot of elbow room.
Maddie Finn is a senior in the College. Off the Wall will appear online every other week.