Healing Historical Wounds: New Federal Rules Prompt Changes at WNMU Museum

Western New Mexico University Museum is in the process of bringing its collections into compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The museum is home to the world’s largest and most complete Mimbres pottery and artifact collection.

© Western New Mexico University

Across the country, museums are covering up their display cases and removing objects from exhibition. New York’s American Museum of Natural History has shut down two entire wings, and closer to home, the Western New Mexico University Museum has been moving a number of Mimbres cultural items into storage. These removals, however, are not the latest attempt to ban cultural materials; rather, they are designed to comply with recent changes to the rules governing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

NAGPRA, which originally passed in 1990, requires institutions that receive federal funding to repatriate Indigenous human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony to lineal descendants or culturally affiliated tribes.

“What the law is saying,” explained WNMU Museum Director Danielle Romero, “is that all cultural items cannot be accessed, researched or displayed without tribal permission [if they are] funerary, anything that can currently be used in rituals and ceremonies, and anything that is considered generally sacred.”

While this law itself has been on the books for thirty-four years, a recent rule on NAGPRA establishes a five-year timeline and establishes processes for returning the items, including consultation between museums and tribes.

There are a number of steps required by NAGPRA. The first is to inventory the Native American materials in the collection, identify the ones that are potentially problematic and remove them from display. The next step is to consult with the tribes that are culturally or geographically connected to the specific Indigenous culture.

Part of what makes this challenging, said Romero, is that the Mimbres people dispersed into other Indigenous communities centuries ago, and consequently, it is not completely clear which tribes are culturally related. She plans to consult with approximately seventeen tribes, primarily Puebloan peoples of New Mexico and Arizona.

An even greater challenge is that the museum does not have a clear provenance for all the items in its collections.  Because many early collectors of Mimbres pottery looted graves, and others simply did not keep track of where and how items were excavated, there are no records to establish whether many objects are sacred or funerary.

The task of inventorying the museum’s Mimbres materials and consulting with tribes will fall primarily on Romero, who is completing her PhD dissertation with a focus on the Mimbres culture. Romero says the amount of work that needs to be done differs among the four primary collections that make up the museum’s Mimbres holdings, the Elk Ridge Collection, the NAN Ranch Collection, the Clint and Dee Johnson Collection and the Eisele Collection.

The Elk Ridge Collection comes from an archeological project that occurred after NAGPRA was passed, so no funerary, ceremonial or sacred items were collected by the museum, and the collection is already in compliance.

The NAN Ranch Collection comes from an academically-led archeological dig from the 1970s and 1980s, so that collection is properly documented, and there are records that indicate which items were recovered from burial sites. It will be Romero’s task to identify and remove those items for tribal consultation and repatriation as well as to identify non-funerary items that may be considered sacred or have served ritualistic purposes.

Unlike the Elk Ridge and NAN Ranch Collections, the Johnson Collection was not the product of an academic project; however, it does contain notes about the items from the family that assembled the collection, so Romero was able to identify some burial items, which she did not put on display.

The most difficult collection to inventory and process, said Romero, is the Eisele collection. Those materials were collected by Richard C. Eisele in the 1920s and 1930s and do not have the documentation to determine the context in which each item was found.

One of the clues that Romero will be looking at as she goes through the collection is whether a bowl has been “killed,” or had a ritual hole punched through the bottom.

According to Romero, there was “a long held belief if something was killed, that means burial.” “But that is not necessarily true,” she said. “Early on in Mimbres archeology, everyone thought that as you are buried, you are buried with a bowl over your head, with a ritual hole punctured in the center,” Romero explained, “But as excavations have happened over time, we have learned that not every burial has a bowl, and not all bowls in burials are killed. And killed bowls can happen just in household context—it does not necessarily have to mean burial.”

She also noted that early excavation processes sometimes involved digging with a section of rebar, which may have poked a hole in a bowl. So careful examination of the bowl and consideration of its provenance, if available, is needed.

Most of the materials that Romero has removed from display so far are bowls. She has also removed jewelry and a pipe which were taken from a grave.

The process of identifying sacred objects is made even more difficult as, with some of the objects, it is unknown what their purpose was. Romero cited small carvings of animals and humans as an example. “A lot of previous archeological interpretation has been that they were toys,” she noted, “but what if they are effigies or fetishes that we know still have importance? Or perhaps [that determination] is context-dependent.” The meaning of an object can be very different depending on whether the archeologist finds it in the remains of a house as opposed to a kiva, she said.

While the process of repatriating funerary and sacred objects may be onerous, Romero is nonetheless embracing it, as are many other archeologists and museum directors.

“There has never been that sit-down conversation with the tribes about what [they] consider sacred,” she said, “We are really hoping that the museum here can be one of the leaders of those conversations.” Romero added, “We need to figure out how to educate the public about these groups and our history without commercializing things that are sacred to other people.”

Romero sees the NAGPRA process as “making right” and healing some historical wounds. “History, anthropology and archeology in the 1800s and early 1900s really did damage,” she said, “Now we are asking ourselves, How do we repair that as best as possible?”

“We want to figure this out,” she added.

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