Smagnis Says: The issue of cultural appropriation remains a popular subject. This week’s highlights are excerpts of postings on this subject. The various articles have elicited significant emotional responses. That is a natural response but we must be aware of tone which can deafen our message. Over the years I have witnessed many of my friends, leaders and otherwise, in communities across the country vent at government officials and others during presentations in the communities. Some of it being political grand standing by leaders but a lot of it being sheer emotional outlet. It is hard for those being targeted to relate to the emotion that goes beyond the rhetoric.

To many people, someone writing and researching about a culture is fine but by doing so masquerading as a member of that culture for personal gain is wrong. It hits at the vien of emotion.  As such, we must measure our response remembering that the greatest distance one will travel in a lifetime is between our heart and our head.  Many of the responses on the issue lashed out and advocated censorship. There is a better strategy.  I always remember this Elder`s saying that “when you go into the bush hunting you don`t go in with guns blazing. You observe the game, study their habitat, learn about their habits and treat them with respect”.

As an Aboriginal veteran I respect democracy and the need for free speech. I oppose censorship. We must speak out on occasion but not let emotion and tone deafen our response. As I have stated in previous posts, I have mixed feelings on the subject and agree with one Aboriginal writer that “ It is time now for us to refocus our energies on what matters to us: first and foremost, working within our communities to strengthen, empower and build each other up. We need to envision, together, the world we want to create and work without this distraction”.  As Jesse Wente stated in his discussion of the issue “We’re in a new paradigm, where Indigenous voices are louder because of social media, because we don’t have to occupy chairs in mainstream news media to have our voices heard. We can do this in another way, and that is not going to change. So the reality is: this is the new reality. When these issues come up, they will be called out repeatedly, and vociferously.” I would add that is the case regardless of which side of the issues you are on.

We have significant facts at our disposal as we move forward. There is still much to do and focus on but progress is being made through the efforts of our past leaders who realized that the Courts are significant agents for change. A Supreme Court Justice, Chief Justice Lamer, stated in his 1996 decision ( Vander Peet) , “That the doctrine of Aboriginal rights exist, and is recognized and affirmed by S.35(1) of the Constitution Act of 1982 because of one single fact, when Europeans arrived in N. America Aboriginal people were already here living in communities on the land and participating in distinctive cultures. It is this fact and this fact alone which separates Aboriginal peoples from all other minority groups in Canadian society”. That, combined with the the Supreme Court of Canada rulings on Aboriginal Title in the Delgamuukw and Tsilhqot’in decisions are strong statements of fact to move forward with.

Yes, when Europeans arrived in North America Aboriginal people were already here living in communities on the land and participating in distinctive cultures. It is time now for us to focus our energies on what matters to us in buiding strong communities and carrying on those responsibilities the Creator has vested in us. Responsibilities like nurturing and protecting future generations and being Stewards for Mother Earth.    HAVE A GREAT WEEK!




Adrian Jawort

Appropriation and Art As Political Pawns

Be cautious about stifling young writers for fear of toeing the appropriation line

Last Autumn I organized a panel for the 2016 Montana Book Festival addressing questions like “How does one go about writing a Native character when one isn’t Native? How should Native authors themselves respond if a reader says they’re ‘making Natives look bad?’”

What had partially spurred the idea was the backlash J.K. Rowling received from the Native American activist community for her four-part series of short online essays called the History of Magic In North America. In her imagined universe, the opening paragraph stated, “Various modes of magical travel – brooms and Apparition among them…” were how the first wizards from Europe came to North America.

I throw “brooms” out because many Rowling bashers acted as if she needed to write an actual historical textbook, all while espousing “damned if you do or don’t” catch-22 impasse complaints: “A white person, she shouldn’t write about us or our beliefs, period!” versus “She should have done more research and been more specific!”

Go figure, if Rowling hadn’t mentioned Natives at all in History of Magic In North America there’d be criticism about whitewashing us from fictional history. While it’s not a masterpiece, it’s as if acknowledging Rowling’s fantasy world went out the door in favor of bandwagon outrage even if the complainers themselves had never written fiction.

Admittedly, I’ve never read or watched Harry Potter apart from the North America-based writings, but I’m not naïve to Rowling’s immeasurable impact in modern literature. Still, the vehemence of complaints against Rowling essentially veered into wanting her censored under the notion that only Indians should be able to write about Indians.

And this isn’t to say there aren’t “pretindians” falsely claiming indigenous identity, or that appropriation isn’t real or not damaging. And yes, “free speech” will always be used as an excuse to be an ignorant inconsiderate jackass, like some Canadian journalists actually currently supporting an ultra-patronizing “Appropriation Award” regarding First Nations people.

When I first heard of this, it was so outrageous I assumed it was satire. Would they call it the Asa Earl Carter Award after the KKK member who wrote the popular The Education of Little Tree novel under the claim he was Cherokee? Write whatever you want and I have the right to tell you how stupid it is, but can you imagine the backlash if a “Negro Appropriation Award” was created?

Renowned Cherokee scholar Dr. Adrienne Keene noted about indigenous representation in fiction:

…I know it can be done, and it can be done right and done well. But it has to be done carefully, with boundaries respected (ie not throwing around Skinwalkers casually in a trailer), and frankly, I want Native peoples to write it. We’ve been misrepresented by outsiders every which-way, and it’s time for us to reclaim our stories and images, and push them into the future, ourselves.

Several years ago a movie-like music video for a song called “Alive” by the UK-based duo Chase & Status was filmed on Montana’s Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Although most of the community blessed the script dealing with issues such as violence, drugs and ceremony, Natives not of the tribe lashed out against it.

Blackfeet and Iowa Writers’ Workshop alumni Sterling HolyWhiteMountain assisted with the video. Although he strived to make the content respectful, it was “naïve” to assume artistic representation could ever be fully controlled. He recalled when the late (fellow) Blackfeet writer James Welch was asked about non-Natives writing about Natives. “His response was that anyone should be able to write about anything—but if you’re writing about something you don’t know anything about, be ready to be told your work isn’t any good.”

Of those supporting controlling artistic narratives, he said, “While I know their intentions are good, and while I very much agree with some of their sentiments (while sympathetic and even agreeable to their concerns and complaints) I also hear the distant echoes of fascist thought in relation to art—i.e., only the art with our stamp of approval can be produced. Such thinking is the death of art, or at least the beginning of that death.” (My emphasis added.)

For my part, I’ve personally worked hard and aspired to create a platform publishing realistic indigenous-based literary fiction to let people know there are writers beyond Sherman Alexie in order to combat what some outside editor assumes how Native literature should read. Although reviews are generally positive of the “beautifully bleak” bluntness of the works, what later struck me as peculiar was a newspaper review that didn’t exactly bash an anthology, but did conclude we needed to add “more positive aspects of being Native American.”

I can’t imagine a white reviewer telling a black, white, Latino, or Asian writer what their subject matter ought to be regarding their ethnic backgrounds and experience because they know they’d rightfully be deemed condescending. And not to single out a reviewer, but I mention it because this type of refrain is common even amongst Natives leery of other Native writers “making us look bad,” as if we need to pretend to be blind to our own surroundings in order to hone a rose-colored-glasses perception ironically geared towards white people.

As the prolific Native horror writer Steven Graham Jones, author of the recent werewolf book Mongrels, told Westworld, “I think my trajectory as an author is a marker of me getting tired of people who only read the Indian in my work. That is to say they’re not engaging it as either good or bad. With American Indian lit, so many people don’t come at it thinking, ‘Is this good or is this bad?’ They come at it thinking, ‘Ooh, this is Indian. Let me use it as a lens into their culture.’”

To combat prejudices and appropriation, many thinkers become trapped in combative political bubbles as liberals unwittingly become illiberal. In this politically divided society fueled by kneejerk reactions, serious conversations regarding artwork get bogged down and stymied by buzzwords and #hashtags with negative connotations.

As Salmon Rushdie said, “Here in America the dangers of free expression are beginning to be greatest when it should be most defended; that’s to say within the wall of the academy. And the people most willing to sacrifice or limit this fundamental right are young people.”

In trying to control the very essence of arts, even much of Native academia becomes guilty of inadvertently veering from controversial intrinsic matters for the sake of political expedience and worries about said outsider perceptions, whereas art doesn’t need to circumvent truths.

While continually reading about what artists should or should not say or do from louder reactionary public voices, rising authors may soon start cowering from what they really want to express as the fear of crossing supposed political boundaries negates art to a political pawn in the ongoing culture wars.

Adrian Jawort is a poet, freelance journalist, writer, and founder of Off the Pass Press LLC which aims to find true beauty in literature off the beaten path.” Titles from Off the Pass Press include the fiction anthologies Off the Path Vol. I and Off The Path Vol. 2: An Anthology of 21st Century American Indian and Indigenous Writers which includes up and coming writers from North America, Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia.


Appalling ignorance on display in appropriation debate

Star Phoenix – Doug Cuthand

As a commentator on Indigenous issues, I am often appalled by the monumental ignorance that exists among the public when it comes to First Nations and Métis issues.

For the past week we have witnessed a drama of ignorance, regret, anger and some humility over the issue of cultural appropriation.

It started as a tempest in a very small teacup. The Writers Union of Canada publishes a quarterly magazine and the current quarter was dedicated to aboriginal writers. The magazine editor Hal Niedzvieki thought he would be either cute or provocative and he wrote an article stating that he didn’t believe in cultural appropriation. He stated that “anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.”

That statement was fine. It opened the door to a discussion about cultural appropriation and what various groups thought about it. It is not only an Indigenous issue but it other groups and people of colour often find their culture appropriated and treated poorly by the majority.

But Niedzvieki didn’t stop there. He continued with his racist rant suggesting there should be an appropriation prize for an author that writes a book about people that aren’t like him or her.

At this point the story heads in two directions. The aboriginal writers were incensed. They had allowed their stories to be printed in a magazine that flippantly offered a prize for appropriation.

On the white peoples side of the equation, the story got legs and people began to donate money for the prize. It wasn’t a bunch of Internet trolls who came forward it was some of the most powerful media people in the country.

Ken Whyte, a former senior vice-president of public policy at Rogers led the charge on Twitter and offered to donate $500, urging others to do the same.

Allison Uncles, editor-in-chief of MacLean’s magazine offered to pony up $500. The National Post’s editor-in-chief Anne Marie Owens made a pledge and Steve Ladurantaye, managing editor of CBC’s newscast the National, tweeted he would throw in $100.

It was all fun and games until reality caught up with them. Reaction from the aboriginal community was swift and outraged. People couldn’t believe the ignorance of the senior personnel. Some thought the whole idea was a joke, if it was it got away on everyone.

Then the blood flowed. Hal Niedzvieki quit his position at the writers union. Jonathon Kay quit his position at the Walrus magazine, not because he donated money, but because he came out in support of the idea and Steve Ladurantaye was reassigned to CBC’s content division.

For Indigenous peoples, cultural appropriation is theft. It’s the story of our history in the Americas. The land was stolen; our children were stolen in the ’60s scoop or the residential schools that came before. Our language and culture was taken from us and our form of government was replaced with colonialism.

This happened across the Americas and the Caribbean in different forms. The Spanish were ruthless and without any regard to the beautiful Indigenous cultures they encountered. In Canada, they were also ruthless and without respect to our language, culture and political leadership but we were set upon by missionaries, bureaucrats and social workers.

We don’t have much left and what remains is deeply personal and valuable to us.

This episode with the media was just one more example of the complete ignorance to our culture and attitude of white privilege that permeates the Canadian media.

But less I end on a negative note, by week’s end a crowd-funding campaign had raised $34,000 for a literary prize for emerging Indigenous writers. Robin Parker, a Toronto lawyer was appalled at the reaction to the glib editorial and the response by Canada’s media establishment. She began the crowd-funding campaign on Monday and by Wednesday evening she had raised three times her original target of $10,000.

This incident has illustrated how out of touch Canada’s media is to the creative flower that is blossoming in Indian Country. The CBC developed a list of 60 books by Indigenous authors, many of which had literary awards. The same renaissance is occurring in the visual arts, performing arts and all other areas of the artistic world. It’s about cultural appreciation not appropriation.

National Post

Images from a report on cultural appropriation. Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage Project, 2015. Think Before You Appropriate. Things to know and questions to ask in order to avoid misappropriating Indigenous cultural heritage.

Simon Fraser University: VancouverImages from a report on cultural appropriation. Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage Project, 2015. Think Before You Appropriate. Things to know and questions to ask in order to avoid misappropriating Indigenous cultural heritage.

Twenty years ago, a native studies professor at Trent University, published an article in American Indian Quarterly arguing that Canada had moved from marginalizing aboriginal culture to appropriating it. “We love Indians to death,” Peter Kulchyski warned, but his plea went largely unheard.

Even earlier, in 1990, Ojibwa writer Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, wrote an essay in the Globe and Mail accusing the Canadian cultural industry of “stealing … native stories as surely as the missionaries stole our religion and the politicians stole our land and the residential schools stole our language.” The country’s literary establishment denounced her as a would-be censor.

Complaints of cultural appropriation are clearly nothing new. But the recent uproar over a proposed “Appropriation Prize” has revealed that an emerging generation of indigenous Canadian creators and academics, empowered by social media, is more equipped than ever to push back.

“We now have a layer of an indigenous intelligentsia in law, in literature, in academia, in arts,” Kulchyski, now teaching at the University of Manitoba, said in a recent interview. “They’re not hesitant about standing up for things that matter to them.”

The results have been swift. Hal Niedzviecki, whose rhetorical call for an “Appropriation Prize” awarded to an author who writes about people “who aren’t even remotely like her or him,” resigned May 10 from his job as editor of the Writer’s Union of Canada magazine. Within days, Jonathan Kay, who defended Niedzviecki against what he called a “mobbing” by “identity-politics fundamentalists,” resigned as editor of The Walrus (though not, he says, as a direct result of weighing in on the issue). And Steve Ladurantaye, one of a group of high-profile journalists who jumped to defend Niedzviecki’s freedom of speech by pledging money for an actual appropriation prize, was demoted from his role as managing editor of CBC’s The National.

Indigenous writers, artists, musicians and journalists harnessed the force of social media to criticize Niedzviecki and his defenders and to explain why, to them, cultural appropriation is no laughing matter.

The poet Joshua Whitehead, a member of Manitoba’s Peguis First Nation, wrote that examples of damaging appropriation are rampant, from the white artist Amanda PL whose work resembles that of the late Anishinaabe painter Norval Morrisseau to a British pop band called Get Inuit. “Ignorance is a tactic best maintained by privilege and while it may be bliss for you it’s a death-sentence for me,” Whitehead wrote on a University of Calgary blog called The Insurgent Architects’ House for Creative Writing.

Niigaan Sinclair, acting head of the department of native studies at the University of Manitoba, said he has no quarrel with Niedzviecki encouraging writers to step beyond their own experiences. But the notion of a prize for the writer “who can take the most things” was offensive, he said, encouraging theft instead of borrowing done with respect and in conversation with the people affected.

“Borrowing is when you have a sense of responsibility to the people and you understand that your story has real-life impact,” he said in an interview.

“Stories aren’t just stories. Stories create opinion, which affects people’s voting, which creates policy, and next thing you know, you have children being taken off to schools to have the Indian hammered out of them. That’s what policy does. That’s what stories do.”

Sinclair, 41, said he has been impressed with the ability of indigenous voices in their 20s and 30s to be heard in the current debate. “When I was in university there was no such thing as social media,” he said.

“We were saying similar things then, but they didn’t have the same kind of impact, because people didn’t read them very much. Because of the work of the people who came before me, my generation’s work and now the work on social media, it’s all inter-related and it’s all part of a large cacophony of people who are saying similar things, yet we have a bigger platform now on social media.”

Jesse Wente, an Ojibwa broadcaster, told the CBC that the reaction to the appropriation prize is a sign of things to come. “We’re asking now for change, and we’re not going to stop asking,” he said. “We’re in a new paradigm, where indigenous voices are louder because of social media, because we don’t have to occupy chairs in mainstream news media to have our voices heard.”

Writing last week on Canadaland, the Métis author Chelsea Vowel said indigenous Canadians “are talking back, despite the abuse we receive every time we challenge mainstream narratives about us. There has been resistance to hearing us, but if recent events are any indication, the Canadian literary and media establishment may no longer have any choice.”

Sage Paul, a Dene artist based in Toronto, has used her art to challenge the fashion industry’s appropriation of indigenous designs. She said her parents’ generation was militant but did not have access to the same platforms for expression. “We can do it not only across Canada and North America, but there’s a global movement,” she said in an interview. “There are indigenous people around the world who all have very similar histories of colonialism and genocide.”

One obstacle encountered by opponents of cultural appropriation is that the term is used so broadly its power can become diluted. How, for example, can cultural appropriation be taken seriously when it is invoked to challenge cafeteria sushi at a U.S. liberal arts college or a burrito shop run by white women in Portland, Ore.?

George Nicholas, an archeology professor at Simon Fraser University and director of the Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage research project, argues that borrowing between cultures has shaped societies around the world, and there is nothing wrong with that.


HandoutOjibwa broadcaster Jesse Wente: “We’re asking now for change, and we’re not going to stop asking.”

But just as trademarks, patents and copyrights protect intellectual property, he said, there should be protection for elements of indigenous heritage. The historical power imbalance between mainstream society and indigenous peoples has meant that little thought was given to the impact of appropriation, whether it is mass-produced gift-shop totem poles or high-end fashion copied from an Inuit parka.

“If I am taking something that is important to someone’s heritage, whether it’s a particular design or a particular set of stories or songs, my using those, my sharing those, my including those in some sort of commercial product, can result in cultural, or spiritual, or economic harm to the people whose heritage it is,” he said.

Kulchyski’s idea of “loving Indians to death” reflects the fact that often appropriation stems from good intentions. But he said it turns heritage into a commodity.

“By simply saying, ‘Oh we love your culture. We’ll have you dance during our Olympic ceremony. We’ll have you say a prayer before our meetings, but we haven’t actually substantively changed the fact that the economy is based on extraction from your lands, and we’re going to continue doing that,’ basically it becomes, at best, a hollow gesture and, at worst … your culture becomes something for sale.”

Keeshig-Tobias has watched the resurgence of the cultural appropriation debate with interest. The abuse she took for her stand in 1990 still stings.

“I was vilified, by just about everybody … big names in the Canadian writing community,” she said in an interview. “The complaint was that I was shackling the imagination.”

Her response then and today: “Your imagination comes right up to my nose, and if it goes any further, then I push back.”

She said it is discouraging to hear the “same old arguments” resurfacing but heartening to see a new generation pushing back.

“Hopefully they’ll listen now. Like I said, we’re in a new era,” she said. “So many things have happened between then and now, and there are so many more wonderfully articulate indigenous people.”

Cross-fertilisation or theft? – Canada’s war over “cultural appropriation”

The Economist

Writers on the wrong side of a debate lose their Jobs

ANYONE, anywhere “should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities”, wrote Hal Niedzviecki in the spring issue of Write, an obscure Canadian literary magazine. For that apparently innocuous observation, he lost his job as the publication’s editor. Mr Niedzviecki was defending “cultural appropriation”, the use by artists and writers of motifs and ideas from other cultures. He suggested an “appropriation prize” for creators who carry out such cross-cultural raids. In a special issue of the magazine dedicated to indigenous writers, that was offensive, his critics said.

Mr Niedzviecki’s supporters were also made to suffer. A journalist at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was demoted after he offered on Twitter to help finance the prize. The editor of Walrus, a better-known magazine, decried “political correctness, tokenism and hypersensitivity” in cultural and academic bodies. After a social-media backlash he, too, resigned. In April a gallery shut an exhibit of the work of Amanda PL, a painter inspired by the style of Norval Morriseau, an indigenous artist.

 Mr Niedzviecki has reopened an old debate. Cross-fertilisation is fundamental to the creative process. This article, for example, is written in Roman letters and uses Arabic numerals. However, many indigenous Canadian intellectuals demand extra sensitivity. Some particularly object to white people borrowing (or “stealing”) elements of their culture.

For some, such borrowing evokes memories of centuries of domination by the British and “white settlers”, who took the land of indigenous peoples, tried to force them to assimilate through residential schools and excluded them from mainstream cultural life. Members of indigenous “First Nations” were not allowed to vote until 1960 unless they renounced their Indian status. Robert Jago, an indigenous writer, says that cultural appropriation leads to “the hypersexualised view” of indigenous women, the myth of the drunken Indian and the “football-mascot-inspired stereotype of the violent warrior”.

The argument is now raging on talk shows, in newspapers and especially on social media. Some think it has been inflamed by Donald Trump, who encourages Americans who object to political correctness to say so. “This is the first and probably not the last intrusion” of Trumpian attitudes into Canada’s cultural debate, says Conrad Brunk, co-author of a book on cultural appropriation. Canada’s indigenous peoples, for their part, have also become more assertive. “We’re in a new paradigm” because of social media, says Jesse Wente, an Ojibwe from the Serpent River First Nation, borrowing words from Latin, Greek and English. “We don’t have to occupy chairs in mainstream news media to have our voices heard.”

That is welcome, but the silencing of other voices is not. The hounding of journalists from their jobs chills free speech. Politely, Mr Niedzviecki admits that his defence of cultural appropriation was “a bit tone deaf”. But he should not apologise too much. He provoked a debate on an important and many-sided issue. Canada prides itself on its diversity of peoples. A diversity of ideas matters, too.

Mooney’s Bay Park totems spark fresh backlash over cultural insensitivity

Ottawa Citizen

Mooney’s Bay Park Sunday May 21, 2017. Ashley Fraser / Postmedia

The official unveiling of the new Mooney’s Bay Park is set for Canada Day 2017, but it is already the source of another controversy, this time over what one critic says is cultural insensitivity.

The first controversy arose in 2016 from the lack of public consultation about the new park project. Sue Holloway outdoor fitness park was removed to make way for the $2-million, 4,600-square-metre playground.

Toronto television production company Sinking Ships Entertainment partnered with the City of Ottawa to build the playground, which now consists of 13 structures meant to represent a part of each province and territory’s history.

The building of the park was featured on the TVO children’s show Giver. The show follows kids from across Canada as they work with contractors and volunteers to build the 13 individual play structures.

The latest controversy appears to have arisen over what appear to be totem poles erected on the section of the playground that has a Wild West theme. “Embarrassing! Hard to believe anyone thought it was a good idea,” reads a critical May 20 tweet.

 Mayor Jim Watson’s response via Twitter: “The people who love it are in the thousands of kids who have been playing on it for weeks! Glad we said no to naysayers and accepted this gift!”

“I think that Canada is celebrating 150 in those kinds of ways and in ways that imprint knowledge onto children that is really shameful and unfortunate,” said Lynn Gehl, is an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from the Ottawa River Valley who holds a PhD in indigenous studies and is an advocate for indigenous rights.

“Canada is supposed to be engaging in nations and nation relationships and in reconciliation and they’re behaving really poorly.”

Canada is building playgrounds that depict indigenous culture in really problematic ways, Gehl said.

Coun. Riley Brockington said in an interview that he had not received a stream of formal complaints, but he said he was aware of the criticisms. He said he had no immediate response indigenous people’s concerns about the playground.

“The builder of the park hired a First Nations adviser to provide them with, I wasn’t part of that process but my understanding was a First Nations person was consulted and questions were asked,” Brockington said.

However, he said he does not know if it the builder consulted a group of first nations or an individual, or what those conversations included.

Gehl said that to use an indigenous participant in the process of planning does not justify what she called a debacle, Gehl said. Building corporations may hire an individual or group of indigenous people that support what they are trying to build and this form of consulting becomes cultural appropriation, she said.

Brockington also said that the park has not been officially opened but has had thousands of visitors. It’s difficult to reflect all cultures or ethnicities that make up our great country, he said.

“Of course there’s going to be a large majority of Canadians who think that place is a lovely place,” Gehl said. “But that doesn’t mean that the 10 per cent of Canadians who understand it as a debacle are wrong. A majority doesn’t make it true.”

Return Native American objects to their rightful home


An act mandates the repatriation of Native American human remains and sacred objects

How ironic that a Massachusetts theological school has not returned a sacred fishhook to the Tlingit Indians of Southeast Alaska! Christian missionaries took the object from the Tlingit in the 19th century.  The halibut fishhook, carved with the form of a wolf, is one of 158 Native American objects in the possession of the Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts, but stored in the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem.

The school, struggling with financial difficulties, wanted to sell some objects two years ago, but were restricted under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990. The act mandates the repatriation of Native American human remains, funerary objects, objects of cultural patrimony, and sacred objects from museums and other institutions to affiliated tribes. The Department of Interior administers NAGPRA, and warned the school against the sell. Now, there are plans for Andover Newton to join the Yale Divinity School.

In 2014, Yale University had its own problems over the repatriation of a one bear and one bird Tlingit carvings held at its Peabody Museum. The Salem and Yale museums were both founded by the philanthropist George Peabody. They were likely to have been stolen, but haven’t yet been returned.

Adding to Yale’s woes are rumors regarding the Skull and Bones secret society that is headquartered there. The well known society may have remains and  possessions of the famous Apache Geronimo in its Skull and Bones Hall, also known as “The Tomb”.  The story suggests they were taken from Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where Geronimo died, and was buried as a US prisoner in 1909 by Yale students stationed at the Fort in 1918. Prescott Bush, father and grandfather of two American presidents, was there at the time. He is said to be included among the ’Yalie’ grave robbers. The full or partial remains of Geronimo in the grave at Fort Still are themselves involved in another repatriation controversy: some Apache want them reinterred in his native New Mexico.

NAGPRA requires a cultural affiliation, defined as shared group identity, between any human remains or objects and an extant, recognized Native American entity. Affiliation may be established by a preponderance of acceptable evidence, including oral traditions and expert opinion. Reported reasons against repatriating the fishhook, and perhaps a related Tlingit shaman’s doll, are that establishing affiliation can be difficult and the people who legitimately represents a tribal entity can be controversial. I do not know of difficulty surrounding the affiliation of the fishhook, or controversy as to whom represents the Tlingit.

As chair of the Native American Repatriation Review Committee overseeing repatriation at the Smithsonian Institution, I was involved in several Tlingit repatriation cases. In one, I attended a conference with Tlingit elders and other tribal representations, including closely-related Haida, at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, Alaska. It was convened to establish the affiliation of several Native masks at the Smithsonian. Everyone insisted on an accurate determination, and the elders openly discussed whether the masks were Tlingit. Even chisel marks on wood were examined minutely to ascertain if they had been made using Tlingit tools. It was concluded that some masks were Tlingit, but some were not. The Tlingit only want their fishhooks returned.

A similar issue arose when the Smithsonian returned Ghost Dance shirts and other items, including a child’s doll and a cradle cap, stolen from the Sioux massacred in 1890 at Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The reservation associated with the majority of those massacred, as represented by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, was uninterested in anything not from Wounded Knee, fake or otherwise. Sioux spiritual leaders could tell the difference, they said. Tribes, not museums or other institutions, are the Native American religious experts.

Native American religions, like other religions, are powerful forces. Repatriation can be a religious obligation, whether or not sacred objects are involved. Walter Echo-Hawk, a hero of the 1980’s repatriation movement leading to the passage NAGPRA, tells me his Pawnee Indian Tribe fuses religion with shared identity, resulting in a strong “religious aspect… to protect the spiritual well-being” of ancestral remains through repatriation.

Groups experience trauma as do individuals. Ed Duran, an Apache and Pueblo Indian and a pioneer scholar of historical trauma, argues the last several hundred year collective experience of Native Americans caused a wound that passes from generation to generation. Controversial as to how it occurs, the expanding field of epigenetics increasingly understands that group trauma affects DNA and transfers genetically to younger generations.

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) of 1978 establishes that Native Americans may freely practice their religions. That Native Americans may now also restore religions through repatriations is a step toward healing the wounds inflicted on Native Americans. It may be hard for Westerners to understand, but the sacred object is the religion, and the religion is the sacred object.

Fundamental to colonial domination of the New World were 15th-century Papal Bulls, for example, Bull Romanus of 1454 and Inter Caetera of 1493, and treaties, like the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, that effectively established a Doctrine of Discovery. Under it, non-Christian lands and those who inhabited them belonged to Christian Nations. Most governments allowed colonizers to do as they pleased with Native inhabitants and they did, often cruelly. The 1512 Laws of Burgos, Spain, codified a set of rights for Natives of the Caribbean as an attempt to assure they were treated humanely.

Repatriations to restore the linkage should occur expeditiously. Rights of Native American tribes to their religions and sacred objects may or may not be inherent, but they are granted by the US Government through AIRFA and NAGPRA.

– Russell Thornton is a Cherokee-American anthropologist at UCLA