A reflection on my directed fieldwork in paper archives and repatriation at NMAI.
In the summer 2009, I was an intern at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) Cultural Resource Center in Suitland, Maryland. I worked in the repatriation department under the supervision of the NMAI head archivist, Jennifer O'Neal.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a Federal law passed in 1990, provides a process for museums and Federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items -- human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony - to lineal descendants, culturally affiliated Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations.
My job was to organize internal records relating to Repatriation Cases at NMAI from 1990 to 2009. I examined boxes of files and determine what records/documents were important for further research. My daily tasks included; appraisal, arrangement, description, and preservation of a series of textual records. I assisted in developing and organizing the internal records of the museum’s Repatriation Office. I conducted detailed inventories of historical records, reviewed files for duplicate records, and organized records to assist with the future structure of incoming records. An example of the series information I provided is as follows:
- Policy--- (Sub series)
- Case file
- Human remains
- Registration/ Collections Information
- Traditional Cultural Office (TCO)
The best part of the job was working with the repatriation staff and learning about the NAGPRA process and hearing the stories of actual cases and the return of human remains, sacred objects, and associated funerary objects.
The cultural protocols office (repatriation) had no 'central file' of repatriation cases. My job was to create a 'central file' for the office. Many of the records were scattered and there were also many duplicate copies of case files and research reports. I had the responsibility of weeding and organizing these records. The documents I appraised, arranged, and described were from the files of various repatriation staff and researchers at NMAI. The research reports included different sources of information about each claim, including archeological and anthropological field notes, archival and historical primary and secondary sources, museum records, specialized publications, and other materials that determine, identify, and document the history of human remains, funerary objects, and sacred objects. Reading the cases on human remains and funerary objects sometimes made me sick, but I realized that each remain and object were evidence and tell the story of indigenous people then and now. American history is bloody, disgusting, and disturbing. The Smithsonian museums have the evidence in the archives that tell the stories of each item in the collection. The library, paper and photo archives collections at NMAI are incredible resources that tell incredible stories.
The Smithsonian's mission is "to increase and diffuse knowledge." The mission of the National Museum of the American Indian is "to advance knowledge and understanding of Native cultures of the Western Hemisphere past, present, and future through partnerships with Native people and others." Without libraries and archives these museums could not exist. Curators, conservationist, collections managers, educators, researchers, and museum administration all depend on libraries and archives to assist them in their work.
The collections at NMAI are alive. It’s hard for me to understand why they are so far away from their homes. I wonder how many days will it take for the stories, traditions, and medicine stored in the collections to return home. I have returned home, but the work in the repatriation office and archives continues. I realized at NMAI that the archives and repatriation are vital to the museum. The evidence is all around this place… photos, documents, media, artifacts from ancestors and living traditions, stories, histories, ceremonies. I am fortunate to have seen and experienced all this in a summer internship.
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