Monday, November 16, 2009


Many people in the West have collections in their basements or garages of things that they’ve simply found or bought from someone else who found it. In Portland, Oregon, my mother had a whole row of stones that had clearly been used for something: mortar and pestle, grinder, pounder. (She lifted most of them from the old man next door when he died. He would have given them to her. He got them from Mister Miller, the amateur archeologist through the block from him. A fellow she hired to do yard work stole the lot.) I suspect that the earlier people were in the habit of just leaving them where they camped and looking around for a new one at the next camp rather than packing them. It was the white people who broke their backs and killed their oxen trying to carry around oak chests and cast iron stoves.

The tendency of people to accumulate and cherish things of little expense but considerable interest is universal and instinctive, something like small boys with cigar boxes of significant objects. (Do you remember that illustrated children’s book called “The Littlest Angel” in which the little boy in question had a box of earthly memorabilia of which the most precious was the collar off his puppy?) It’s an egalitarian “people’s tendency” that eventually collided with the elitist and secretive notions of collecting, along the lines of aristocracy and Papal authorities. Eventually, someone impressed by an arrowhead collection would say, “You oughta start a museum.” The result would be opening up to the public, but reinventing the privilege aspect by charging admission to support maintenance and reward the virtue of ownership.

In 1962 a federal game warden came to the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife and threatened to padlock the place because of the mounted songbirds which Bob Scriver had acquired by paying kids 50¢ each for bringing in the stiff little corpses of the birds killed in an early spring blizzard. (Not unusual in Montana.) Bob had been aware that he needed to have a taxidermy license to mount waterfowl and even that he could only have his mounted eagle because it had belonged to his father since early in the twentieth century. He had not really thought about songbirds, but the penalties for collecting them, their nests, and their eggs are draconian. The violation is a felony: $2,000 and six months in jail for each offence. (Check it out, interior decorators!) Today everyone is so intense about eagle parts, it is such an enormously emotional political issue, that my Blackfeet friends and I have joked that a good way to exact revenge on a white man would be to “gift” him with an eagle feather just before he crossed the border into Canada. It would be as effective as planting drugs. Where would you get the feathers? In moulting season walk along the edges of pothole lakes and keep your eyes open. Check along cliffs where eagles nest. No need to machine gun eagles from airplanes.

These two tendencies, one to accumulate found objects and the other to find objects precious and regulate them, run headlong into the American principles of populist access versus European elitist status markers, the same as Herman brilliantly traced out in “Hunting and the American Imagination.” On the one hand, a private hunting preserve was the marker of landed gentry, and on the other hand immigrants felt that this new creation should belong to all men -- the Americas, free for the taking. Except for the indigenous people objecting and trying to hold the boundaries of their own livelihoods and territories. That makes three forces in play, if you’re keeping track.

So NAGPRA requires the return of authochthonous religious and ceremonial objects as well as human remains. But the American constitution protects the right of private citizens to own their own possessions without threat of search and seizure. And the American Indians claim a higher God-given (gods-given?) entitlement to seize materials immorally owned by people who are nonbelievers. Thus Bob Scriver sold his Native American artifacts to Edmonton to escape the US NAGPRA law, which he incorrectly thought allowed his collection to be seized, and then the Premier of Alberta returned the Sacred Bundles to the tribal people in obedience to the moral law of religious privilege.

At the crux of museum law is the distinction between private and public. Clearly Bob’s little museum in Browning was private, though he was required to have a public bathroom and allowed public access to anyone who came up with the admission fee, as well as free admission to all locals -- Indian or not. Just across the road the Museum of the Plains Indian was public, though it was built with money from Lion’s Clubs and the American Indian Crafts Board (mostly whites), who didn’t think they were displaying fabulous treasures, but rather presenting examples of what the local people could make for sale. The idea was sold as being something like helping Appalachian women to make and sell quilts. The Sacred Thunder Pipe displayed outside its Bundle was innocently shown as an example of fine workmanship, the same as the elegant beaded and feather peyote rattles which are also religious objects within the context of their use.

Academics and philosophers can make distinctions between profane and sacred, secular and religious, private and public, museum and collection until the cows come home. (A ritual for cows.) Politicians and Department of the Interior rule-mongers can draw lines and prescribe behavior and impose penalties all they want. What REALLY counts is whether the public realizes that something is considered bad behavior and -- probably more important -- understands why.

Native Americans have so far tried to enforce their moral rights by demonstrations of extreme passion (a recognized indigenous rhetorical strategy) more than reasoned argument, with considerable success. But they have also triggered suppression, secrecy, and avoidance. No one wants to get mixed up in such messes, especially if there are actual legal penalties involved. At the same time there is an aspect of defiance in American political character (just ask the gun lobbyists) that resists just as passionately any kind of restriction on what is considered historically legitimated ownership. This leads to some fancydancing on the part of the truly big and prestigious museums, who mix elitism with academic privilege. It makes for good jobs for educated tribal people who can provide some political cover.

There’s a built-in problem: how are people going to understand what and why Indian artifacts require legal protection unless they know the moral and practical reasons why -- and how will they figure out what those are without some coaching and examples in museums? Especially since some of the most sacred materials are secret?

I have no answers. This is for our entire society to work out together.

1 comment:

Lance Michael Foster said...

I read about a study where a fella was trying to see if a mouse's eating and sleeping was driven internally or by light. So he stuck in a lightswitch in the set-up. Well it turned out the mouse didn't care about the light or dark. It cared about whether the man switched it on or off, because the mouse would then do the opposite. If the man switched it on, the mouse went over and switched it off. And vice versa. Lesson: Not even mice want to be told what to do, or be manipulated.

Most people, if you tell them not to do something will either a) do it anyways, b) find out why, c) find out why and do it anyways.

I used to care more than I do.

I do know some of that stuff has a "life" to it, and why mess with something that can bring trouble and grief.