On April 27, 1846, writing from Lapwai, beyond the borders of the United States on the Clear Water River, the first missionary to the Nez Perce (Niimíipuu) Tribe, Henry Harmon Spalding addressed a letter to his “Dear Brother” and former Western Reserve classmate, Dr. Dudley Allen, in Ohio.1 Spalding noted in his fine handwriting that covered all available space on the paper, “after many promises & a long delay I have started the boxes containing a small collection of articles of Indian manufacture with some specimens of stone &c, all designed for yourself.”2 Spalding did not ship everything that he had collected for Allen.
Spalding regretted that the two “Grey Bear skins & a pack saddle” were not shipped because “it was thought they would be destroyed on Board ship by rats.” Who knew that bear skins are a rat delicacy? Fortunately, this letter and the boxes that Spalding sent to Allen stuffed with priceless Nez Perce and Plateau Indian artifacts down the Columbia River survived the journey to Ohio. It was a long trip: some 465 miles west down the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver. From there, they travelled across the Pacific to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaiʻi), then south around the cape of South America to Boston followed by an overland journey west to Ohio.
Roughly 150 years later, in an ironic turn, the collection that Spalding assembled became the focus of a major struggle over ownership between the Nez Perce Tribe and the National Park Service on one side and the Ohio Historical Society on the other. The Spalding-Allen Collection, the context of its creation, its subsequent survival, and the prolonged efforts of the Nez Perce and the National Park Service to acquire and keep the objects in the Nez Perce homeland will be the focus of this book, the first extended treatment of this story.
The act of collecting is a topic of increasing scholarly interest. As the scholar Curtis Hinsley observed, collecting is “an expression of desire through the exercise of power over others.”3 This “exercise of power” includes the acquisition of selected items and the act of describing the items in new ways. Unfortunately, we do not know the exact details of how Spalding acquired his collection or from whom, but there are clues to the context present in Spalding’s surviving correspondence, the judgement of scholars, and importantly, Nez Perce oral traditions. These issues comprise the early chapters.
Connected to the notions of power and description, collecting is also associated with place. The curator and scholar Christian Feest defined collecting as “a process by which samples of a complex whole are removed from their meaningful and functional context in order to be preserved under artificial conditions and within a new frame of reference.” 4 When Spalding shipped the collection around the world to Allen, and Allen’s descendants in turn donated the collection to Oberlin College, this Nez Perce material culture was far removed from its “meaningful and functional context.” I argue that place and context matters when interpreting material culture. The shirts and dresses in the Spalding-Allen Collection, for example, come from a specific place, were created from resources present there, and made by people whose decedents still live there. These objects, therefore, inform a specific place and way of life. These powerful connections are lost when the items are stored away from public view in a far distant repository. The story of the “lost” years of the Spalding-Allen Collection during its residence in Ohio is the subject of Chapter 4 in Part 2.
Henry Spalding’s collecting was also closely linked to colonialism, westward expansion, and the American domination of the Oregon Country. Spalding sought to change the Nez Perce so that they could assimilate into the dominant culture. In this way, he was at the vanguard of more than a century of concerted efforts by the United States government to seize resources and change Nez Perce culture and the cultures of Native peoples across the United States.
This is a tale of survivance, the resilience and enduring presence of the Nez Perce people to advocate for justice and the repatriation of their cultural heritage. It is also an example of the contested ownership of a collection by an institution, the Ohio Historical Society, of the material culture of a far distant people, the Nez Perce. However, in this case, the American public sided with the Nez Perce and their supporters. Their success drew upon a close collaboration with the National Park Service, persuasion, and a sophisticated media campaign. In the end, the Nez Perce Tribe repatriated the earliest documented collection of artifacts of their people and the largest and best documented surviving collection of Plateau material culture.5
While the roots of this story—the origins of the collection and the activities of Henry Spalding—date to the nineteenth century, much of the story, including the contested ownership of the Spalding-Allen Collection and its eventual return to the Nez Perce homeland, takes place during the late twentieth century. This is the subject of parts two and three of the book. With few exceptions, historians have largely ignored contemporary Nez Perce history and instead continue to write primarily about nineteenth-century topics, such as Chief Joseph and the war of 1877.6
Stepping back, this research also centers on the very enterprise of history: how primary sources are created, preserved, and ultimately made available for researchers. For the survival and accessibility of primary sources is never neutral, and their preservation—among collectors and families and over time in institutions—is never assured. This book explores the making of a collection, informed by an archive of documents whose ownership was contested, tangled in the legacy of colonialism. Archivists, curators, and scholars refer to the origins of collections, their creation and the history of their care as “provenance.” Provenance is critical to all historical research because it informs the interpretation of all primary sources. However, many scholars do not ask basic questions regarding the provenance of the collections they rely upon for their research. Why is a particular collection located in Washington DC, or New Haven, or London? How was it acquired and under what circumstances? Do other communities have a vested interest or a claim to it? What barriers are in place that hinder access to the materials?
For curators at museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions, the provenance of their early acquired collections is often murky. Generally, the names of the collectors are known but not always how they acquired their collections. The circumstances through which collections are acquired are often unrecorded by the collectors leaving museum curators to fill in the missing pieces with incomplete evidence. My research seeks to answer these and other questions related to the provenance of the Spalding-Allen Collection.
This story is much broader than one tribe’s efforts to reclaim a portion of their cultural heritage. The ultimate success of the Nez Perce to reclaim the Spalding-Allen Collection is one example in a larger struggle of indigenous communities around the world to reclaim their cultural heritage—heritage that was, in many cases, extracted and shipped great distances from source communities.
On another level, these events mark the start of a shift in relationships between collecting institutions (museums, archives, and libraries) and Native peoples. The passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) on November 16, 1990, mandated that any institution in the United States that received federal funds must report to the federal government their holdings of Native American (and Native Hawaiian) remains and associated funeral and sacred objects. NAGPRA also compelled repositories to contact representatives of the native communities regarding these materials, the descendants of the peoples whose physical remains and funerial and sacred objects were collected by non-native people. These affected communities would then determine the final disposition of these objects based on a “reasonable” conclusion derived from a “preponderance” of available evidence.
In 1993, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) adopted a Code of Ethics for Museums which states, among other points, that collections in a museum are “accounted for and documented” and that “competing claims of ownership that may be asserted in connection with objects in its custody should be handled openly, seriously, responsively and with respect for the dignity of all parties involved.”7
The spirit of NAGPRA that native communities should have legal protections over categories of their material culture, led to discussions in 2006 among museum officials to define what constituted “sacred” objects, as well as conversations in the archives community over Protocols for Native American Archival Materials.8 At its August 13, 2018, meeting in Washington, DC, the Society of American Archivists formally endorsed the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials. According to the American Archivists website, “when presented with the Protocols in 2008, the SAA Council declined to endorse them, opting instead to solicit feedback and discussion over a multi-year period.” The SAA admitted that many of the original criticisms of the protocols were based in the “language of cultural insensitivity and white supremacy” and after more feedback and discussion the Council again declined to endorse the Protocols in 2012. However, six years later, “the SAA Council acknowledges that endorsement of these Protocols is long overdue. We regret and apologize that SAA did not take action to endorse the Protocols sooner and engage in more appropriate discussion.”9
NAGPRA and its legal requirements marked a major change in the relationship between institutions, such as museums, and native communities. However, in the years after the passage of NAGPRA not all curators, anthropologists, collectors, and scientists embraced the law. The most controversial case of NAPGRA centered on the disposition of the remains of Kennewick Man or the Ancient One whose skeleton two college students found in 1996 in the shallows of the Columbia River near the city of Kennewick, Washington. Local police initially opened a murder investigation, but after further investigation, scientists determined that the bones were old, very old: over 8,500 years old.
The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and four other tribes sued the US Army Corps of Engineers (who managed the land where the skeleton was found) to repatriate Kennewick Man and rebury him. Before the bones were returned, a group of scientists led by Doug Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, filed another lawsuit to halt the repatriation so that the remains could be studied. The scientists argued in court that the bones were so old they could not be linked to living Native Americans. Owsley based his opinion on evidence that Kennewick Man consumed a marine diet, indicating that he lived near the coast, but had travelled up the Columbia River only to hunt. Some scientists drawing on skull measurements reminiscent of nineteenth-century methodologies claimed that Kennewick Man’s skull had “Caucasoid” features and that he was European. Others joined the fray, including a group in California, modern day pagans who sued for the bones to bury them in a pre-Christian Norse Ceremony.
Recent evidence bolstered the arguments of the Native groups that Kennewick man was indeed a distant relative. In 2015, a group of Danish scientists published a paper in Nature proving that Kennewick Man’s DNA did not belong to a European but rather most closely resembled the DNA of members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.10 Other Plateau communities objected to the Colville participation in the study, as it required further samples taken from the “Ancient One.” After the publication of the DNA findings and proof of the close connection with Plateau Indians, which came as no surprise to Native American groups, powerful political allies sought to repatriate the remains. Recovering the remains was more complicated than simply receiving the remains stored in the Burke Museum. According to Nakia Williamson-Cloud, director for the Nez Perce Tribe Culture Resource Program, several researchers held onto to samples of the Ancient One and were reluctant to return them for reburial.
In August 2015, Senator Patty Murray of Washington state introduced legislation to return Kennewick Man’s skeleton to the Colville and the coalition of Columbia Basin tribes. Washington governor Jay Inslee and Representative Dan Newhouse lent public support to Murray’s legislation. Murray’s legislation was attached to the 2016 Water Resources Act, a bill that had strong bipartisan support. President Obama signed the bill on December 16, 2016. After the passage of her amendment, Senator Murray said, “After more than 20 years of debate, it’s time to return the Ancient One to his rightful resting place.”11 Just upriver from the site of the discovery of Kennewick Man’s remains, Wanapum elder Rex Buck articulated the view of many Native Americans that it was time to honor Kennewick Man, the Ancient One, by reburial. “We need to put him back so he can rest,” Buck said.12
As the litigation over Kennewick Man demonstrated, NAGPRA remains a slow and at times a controversial process. For the first few years after 1990 and the passage of the law, this was especially true. Today, NAGPRA claims generally follow a routine, bureaucratic process. In the early 1990s, some in the scientific and museum community saw the law as a potential threat that would force the return of collections and disrupt scholarship. However, decades later, most view the law as having a very positive effect on the relations between Native American communities, curators, and academics. Anthropologist Max Carocci observed in a 2018 essay that NAGPRA covers more than burials, exhumations, and repatriations. According to Carocci, the legislation “was meant to provide a framework for re-assessing power imbalances between museum and indigenous North American communities, which for many decades were left out of even the most basic decisions about the fate of their cultural heritage lying in museums, storage facilities, and research laboratories.”13 A generation after the passage of NAGPRA, dialog and consultation around the management of cultural heritage between Native American groups and museums is part of the ethos of curating Native American collections at most major American museums. NAGPRA has also led in some cases to a sense of healing. According to curator Chip Colwell, “repatriation may also heal by restoring broken relationships between the living and the dead, as much as between the scientific and indigenous communities. Repatriation heals by visibly shifting power; it symbolizes freedom from colonialism.”14
NAGPRA has had an impact. After three decades, Native Americans and Native Hawaiians have reclaimed more than 50,000 sets of human remains, 1.4 million funerary objects, and 14,000 sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony.15 However, the greatest obstacle in returning bodies and sacred burial goods (estimated at 200,000 sets of remains and more than one million funerary objects) held in federal and museums nationwide is the lack of documentation (provenance) of where collections came from. Centuries of collecting and poor record keeping, and more recently, decades of dam and road construction preceded by hasty archaeological digs resulted in millions of poorly documented Native American collections (bodies, grave goods, and other objects) in museums. According to a 2010 Government Accountability Office Report the vast numbers of unidentified collections was a result of “poor curation practices by agencies and repositories, along with poor historical records and documentation.”16 These “vast numbers” represent roughly 75 percent of all bones labeled as Native American, comprising some 122,736 sets of remains. These bodies remain in limbo because according to the institutions that hold the bones, they do not have the documentation to return the bodies to the culturally affiliated tribes.17 The Spalding-Allen Collection differs dramatically from many early Native American collections because Spalding wrote a detailed letter describing the objects and their relative value. The letter also dates and situates the items in the collection.
In the struggle over the Spalding-Allen Collection, the Ohio Historical Society resisted NAGPRA. They were slow to report on their holdings to the Federal Government and their relationship with Native American history centered on curating historical collections, not engaging with contemporary Native communities. On the other extreme, the Nez Perce National Historic Park, founded by a series of cooperative agreements and an extremely close working relationship with the Nez Perce Tribe exceed the spirit of NAGPRA. Franklin Walker, superintendent of the Nez Perce National Historic Park characterized the nature of this partnership: “our relationship had built a level of trust and respect rarely seen between a Native Nation and the National Park Service.”18 Although NAGPRA is part of this story and an important legal development in the changing relationships between Native American groups and museums, the Nez Perce decided not to pursue a NAGPRA claim against the Ohio Historical Society. Such claims generally take years to resolve and many NPS officials and Nez Perce feared the Spalding-Allen Collection would be sold on the open market before a resolution.
The Spalding-Allen Collection is at the center of this research. To keep it there, I draw upon an anthropological framework for collecting and curating collections—what anthropologists Amy Margaris and Linda Grimm call a “life history” approach for collections. Meaning is not inherent in objects, and by extension archives, but “is imparted and revealed through their interactions with human agents.” 19 Collections require human interaction to be meaningful. And when collections were removed from the cultural settings and the people that best understand the artifacts, the collections further lose cultural context. By drawing upon a life history approach for the Spalding-Allen Collection, we see that the curation and meaning associated with it, depending on the individuals associated with it and where the collection was held, is an ongoing process: a process that changes over time. This research demonstrates that the “life history” of this particular collection remains most vibrant after the collection returned to its “meaningful and functional” context in Nez Perce country.20
This “life history” approach is appropriate in another sense, for it is a methodology employed by oral historians. In oral history, a “life history” refers to an expansive interview, generally recorded in multiple lengthy sessions, in which the interviewee can relate their whole life, “from childhood to the present.”21 This book is a “life history” of a given and collection. I consulted texts and interviewed individuals to tease out the context in which the Nez Perce created the Spalding-Allen Collection, its journey across the United States, and story until its return to Nez Perce country. My research therefore draws upon the expertise of curators, dealers, conservators, and most importantly the Nez Perce, who preserve the traditions of their material culture, passed down many generations. The prominence of Nez Perce voices in this work seeks to put their voices on an equal footing with those written sources that, starting with Spalding and his fellow missionaries, reflect the views of the dominant culture.
Prior to conducting any interviews, I completed a Washington State University (WSU) Institutional Review Board (IRB) Exemption Determination Application. On February 5, 2015, the WSU IRB notified me that IRB oversight was not required for my research. The IRB determination, however, did not constitute permission to recruit members of the Nez Perce Tribe for interviews or conduct my research on their reserved lands. I then completed a Nez Perce research permit to interview enrolled members of the Nez Perce Tribe.22
A professor had described to me his visit before a different tribal research board as a grilling worse than any graduate exam. I prepared for my visit and, after scheduling my appointment with help from Josiah Pinkham, I arrived at the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee (NPTEC) headquarters early and practiced my brief speech describing my research project. Nakia Williamson-Cloud advised me to be quiet and then he succinctly and eloquently summarized my project and indicated his support. After the presentation, a few of the NPTEC members asked questions and it was then that I met Bill Picard who later recorded an amazing interview. They approved my research permit on April 21, 2015. After this meeting, I reflected on one of the key questions included on the Nez Perce Tribe’s Research Permit application. How does this research benefit the Nez Perce Tribe?
To start to answer this question, I wanted to ensure that the research I conducted would be easily available to the Tribe, so I changed the release forms that I had planned to use for the interviews from those of the WSU Libraries to those of the National Park Service. After I conducted the interviews, I sent my interviewees copies of the transcripts of our interviews. Upon completing my dissertation on which this book is based, I donated the releases, audio files, and transcripts from the oral histories to the Nez Perce National Historic Park in Idaho so that the interviews would be with the Spading-Allen Collection. If any royalties result from this book, I will make donations to the Nez Perce Tribe and to the Washington State University in support of programs that benefit the Niimíipuu people.
In addition to generously sharing their cultural expertise, several of the Nez Perce I interviewed, including Nakia Williamson-Cloud, Josiah Pinkham, and Kevin Peters, also brought their knowledge of Nez Perce material culture. These men intimately know how their ancestors made the items in the Spalding-Allen Collection because they continue these same traditions. Between the three of them, they fashion a wide range of traditional Nez Perce items such as head dresses, beaded gun cases, carved flutes, men’s shirts, cradleboards, and other objects.23
For this methodology of conducting interviews and listening to Indian perspectives, I am indebted to Lucullus V. McWhorter, whose papers are held in the archives at Washington State University, where I work. McWhorter was a rancher and an advocate for Native issues. In his youth, McWhorter found the outdoors more compelling than the classroom. Though he ended his formal education when he was twelve, McWhorter became a passionate amateur archaeologist, a collector of arrow points, and eventually an ethnographer and historian. McWhorter began forming his archive in earnest in 1906, when he assisted the Yakama people in their struggle against legislation proposed by Washington Senator Wesley Jones that every Yakama Indian give up three fourths of his or her land allotment in exchange for irrigation rights.24 To win public support for his position, McWhorter collected documents from Indian agents, Yakama sources, and conducted interviews with Indians and non-Indians for a series of pamphlets—The Crime Against the Yakimas (1913), The Continued Crime Against the Yakimas (1916), The Discards (1920)—that he published on behalf of Yakama rights. The Yakama Tribe prevailed and kept their water. Because of these efforts in 1909, the Yakama adopted McWhorter with the name “Old Wolf” and invited him to tribal deliberations, where he listened and took notes.
In these pamphlets and his later books, McWhorter became a close friend and trusted advocate to many Plateau peoples. His writings provided Native perspectives on historical events decades before historians began to include Native American voices in their work.25 According to Nez Perce Tribe member and park ranger/cultural interpreter, Diane Mallikan, the only books the Nez Perce would read of their history were Yellow Wolf: His Own Story and Hear Me My Chiefs! by McWhorter. The other histories of the Nez Perce, according to Mallikan, “contained so many lies because historians depended almost exclusively on military reports as the foundation of their research.”26 McWhorter is an instructive model not only for what he wrote, but also for how he wrote.
In addition to my training as a historian, I bring to this research a background in archives and libraries. I oversee the department of Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections at Washington State University located in Pullman, Washington, on traditional Nez Perce and Palouse lands. In my work at WSU and collaboration with colleagues, I have learned that many of the significant collections that document the early culture of this region’s Native American communities no longer reside in this region. Important collections gathered by early Euro-American colonizers now grace the storage vaults of museums and research institutions across the United States, Canada, and Europe. Often these collections are poorly documented and inaccessible to the very communities that are particularly interested in them. This pattern of acquisition continues today where the wealthiest of private (and some public) institutions can afford to acquire collections offered by specialized dealers while regional institutions and tribal, archives, libraries, and museums simply cannot compete in this marketplace.
My work at WSU includes codirecting the Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation (CDSC), established in 2015 as a collaboration between the WSU Libraries and the College of Arts and Sciences. Our work involves the ethical curation of digital cultural heritage. My colleague and codirector, Dr. Kimberly Christen, developed the Mukurtu Content Management System in collaboration with Alex Merrill, the CDSC’s director of technology.27 Mukurtu is an Australian aboriginal term for a dilly bag or a safe keeping place. Created as a safe keeping place for digital cultural objects, Mukurtu was designed with Indigenous protocols for circulating and sharing information. For instance, Mukurtu provides communities with options for circulating digital heritage at a granular level. As an example, a tribe managing their Mukurtu site may determine that access to particular images or recordings should be for women only, or restricted by family, clan, or other kin group or at certain times of the year. Site administrators can assign these nuanced protocols to individual digital objects. Mukurtu also rebalances the control and authority over categorizing and describing collections by putting Native/Indigenous knowledge on par with archival or library description. Our current work with Mukurtu seeks to develop models for the shared curation of Native American cultural heritage between major American collecting institutions such as the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, and sovereign Native American tribes.
A highly visible example of Mukurtu available online is the Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal, a collaboration between WSU and eight tribes from the Columbia Plateau, including the Niimíipuu. In 2020, as the Nez Perce National Historic Park completed the final stages of consultation for a new long-term exhibit, the Spalding-Allen Collection moved from the exhibit area (where most of the collection has remained since 1978) to rest in the temperature-controlled collections storage vault at the park. But the Spalding-Allen Collection is still be available to the public online. The photographs and research materials developed as part of this book are now part of Niimíipuu section of the portal.28 This book is another answer for how this research benefits the Nez Perce Tribe.
Grunge and the Spalding-Allen Collection Campaign
I first learned of the Spalding-Allen Collection at the start of my graduate history program at WSU. The events had taken place less than a decade before I came to work at the university. Initially, I had planned to write about the Spalding-Allen Collection as the fourth chapter in a dissertation about collectors whose collections founded archival repositories in the region. After writing the first three chapters, I realized that the planned chapter on Henry Spalding and the Spalding-Allen Collection should be the entire research project. 29
As I learned more about the collection, I found it surprising the Nez Perce Tribe had raised the staggering sum of more than $608,000 to purchase it from the Ohio Historical Society. And I wondered, why did they have to pay for it in the first place? The fact that one of my favorite bands, Pearl Jam, played a small role in the fundraising for the return of the collections was also intriguing. As I began my research, I discovered the Spalding-Allen Collection was the largest and earliest documented surviving collection of Nez Perce material culture. The collection included beautifully made dresses and shirts with elaborate decorative elements. Not only was it in exquisite condition and extremely rare but also the collection itself served as an important bridge between contemporary Nez Perce culture and the lifeways of the Nez Perce during early contact.
In conducting my research, I realized that I saw the collection differently from the Niimíipuu experts I interviewed. Like them, I admired the designs and condition of the artifacts and their documented age. However, when as we dug deeper during interviews with curators and members of the Nez Perce Tribe, I came to appreciate that they viewed these items not only as museum pieces, but as examples of techniques, providing an opportunity for the repatriation of skills and life ways. In particular, the use of decorative porcupine quillwork—present in the collection—was replaced by beads after sustained Euro-American exchange when beads could be readily attained. The collection’s examples of quill decorations allow contemporary Nez Perce to see how these materials were processed and sewn onto the garments, thereby providing inspiration to contemporary Nez Perce artists. These objects also represent a rich opportunity to revitalize the Nez Perce language, for the technical vocabulary of garments and horse regalia include words uncommon in everyday Nez Perce speech.
Place matters for this story. The items in the Spalding-Allen Collection came from a particular place on the Columbia Plateau, and were made by people who fashioned them from local plants and animals. One can simply walk outside the Nez Perce National Historic Park gallery in Spalding, Idaho, and see the plants and (if one is lucky) the animals used to fashion the objects in the collection. The descendants of the Niimíipuu people who made the items in the collection work at the park site and live nearby.
The Spalding-Allen Collection, once removed from the Columbia Plateau, lost much of its connection with the people who understood, used, and appreciated the objects in it. According to Nakia Williamson-Cloud, “the problem with collecting in general in terms of the museum environment today is you kind of strip these items out of their natural context.” And in doing so this creates, Williamson-Cloud continued, a “gap between the knowledge and understanding of how these items . . . were utilized and how they were worn and [on] what occasions . . . who this item was originally made for and how it was used and all the knowledge that went with it. And it puts it in a kind of relatively inert environment.”30
Furthermore, something is lost when artifacts are removed from their cultural setting and placed in a distant, inert environment. The objects that comprise the Spalding-Allen Collection are not only beautiful to see but also engage multiple senses: touch, smell, and sound, particularly when the Nez Perce language is spoken. The scholars Constance Classen and David Howes argue, “the sensory values of an artifact, furthermore, do not reside in the artifact alone but in its social use and environmental context. This dynamic web of sensuous and social meaning is broken when an artifact is removed from its cultural setting and inserted within the visual symbol system of the museum.”31 The return of the Spalding-Allen Collection to the Nez Perce and its “natural context,” and the healing of its “dynamic web of sensuous and social meaning,” represented an important milestone in a broader Nez Perce effort to retain and reclaim their cultural heritage. Collections, I argue, are best curated by individuals knowledgeable about the local context of the items.
This research explores one collection and one community’s struggle to regain its cultural heritage. However, this story is important on a much broader level because museums and other collecting institutions hold vast and poorly documented collections related to indigenous peoples around the world. By piecing together the provenance of these collections—when they were acquired, under what circumstances, how the institutions came to own them—affected communities can begin a dialog with museum curators around the ethical, shared curation of these collections.
This book examines the dynamics of a Native American Nation seeking to preserve its culture by repatriating a collection from the ownership of a museum that claimed title under dubious circumstances. In this sense, this research transcends the efforts of one tribe on the Columbian Plateau, and speaks to communities across the globe who wish to see their material culture held by museums and private collectors return home.