“Ownership” is a concept caught in a vise by globalization. Who can own land? Who can own children? Who can own a country? Who can own artifacts? There is no agreement. But we must decide. Here’s a list of issues:
Colliding cultures: One culture, usually the older one, awards ownership according to the creation and use of the object. Another culture, particularly the juggernaut of European common law, asserts that ownership must respond to rules that are written and judged, involving matters of inheritance, documents and payment. Another culture assumes that everything belongs to the community according to need. One of the most intriguing ideas is that artifacts belong to themselves: have lives, functions and consequences of their own. So that the Thunder Pipe Bundle of which I am a “Keeper” according to the transfer of guardianship (NOT ownership), is not in a known location because it doesn’t want to be. It will return when the circumstances are right for its own goals.
Fractionated ownership: something that plainly belonged to one person is inherited by many descendants. But only one takes possession. This is closely related to Solomon’s problem: who is the mother of the child, the one who gives birth or the one who gives care?
Value gradients: a thing that is worthless in one place and time might be very precious at another time and place. Here’s an extreme example: air is all over, we all breathe it, No one owns it. But some practices and conditions remove its life-giving property. So who owns it now? Maybe the point is more clear if we talk about water.
Popularity: creating a demand for something is not so hard but can jack up or diminish the value of something. Maybe for excellent reasons (think drug rehab) and maybe for lousy reasons (Is profit a lousy reason? Interior decoration? Self-aggrandizement? All pertain to artifacts.) It’s not so much the grounds for ownership as the aggrandizement of ownership.
Emotional: I once went round-and-round with Dan Aadland about a tree burial on his ranch. He felt a strong connection to it and was respectful of it, but considered himself the owner. Against this was the tribal assertion that it was THEIR tribesman, possibly genetic ancestor, who was there and this trumped his attachment. He could not POSSIBLY own that tree burial. He could not see that the two claims conflicted. The only reason I did myself was because a small number of native American women decided to improve my consciousness, which took days.
Commodification: Something need not be owned to be commodified. My usual examples are the practice of saying how much a grizzly bear is “worth” for the purpose of preserving their habitat and the budget set aside for their study. More gruesome are the lists of values for body parts that insurance companies use. Who “owns” your limbs or liver?
Secondary and tertiary value: Relics of movie stars, their images, rights, reputations. All in turmoil. Bob Scriver’s will failed to address the rights to his books, the rights to posters of his work, and -- lucky for me -- accounts of his life. But the law is saying that descendants can “own” the reputation of a famous ancestor and prevent anyone else from saying anything about it.
Political value: The right to take a photo of an Indian person or their lodge or home has expanded to the right to take a photo or trespass on any part of the landscape that has spiritual value to the Blackfeet, including the Rocky Mountains and Chief Mountain. The pushback has been to demand concrete proof of “religious” use, which is not the same as “spiritual,” or to demand a limit, a boundary, which is not possible since the distinction between religious and secular is not existent in Blackfeet terms. There is no secular, there is no separation of church v. state. The religious is the political. Can one own one’s own God? One’s sacred places, despite real estate value?
Value of intangibles: One sort of “artifact” is story or cultural knowledge about a group. The assertion is that only the people who belong to that group can write about the group. (Sherman Alexie is strong on the subject.) And yet many tribal members hurry to tell old stories to non-Indians and only a few, still, have achieved the credentials to act as anthropologists. (Whatever that is now.) The conviction of the tribal member is that if white people made money writing about them, then it should work for the tribal members, too. But times have changed and the younger writers don’t know much about the old ways except what they were told by older relatives and what they read that has been written down by white people. The problem is much complicated by the Blackfeet having lived in an oral culture and the early white writers being very much culture-bound so that their insight was blinkered. Few tribal members are readers, esp. now in the age of video and music, so they simply don’t know what’s out there and so far no entity (though SALT is trying) has found the key to producing consistently marketable material. So why own it? Because Indians need to make money.
Dominance of the flashy: The big value goes to the bright stuff. A parade Indian’s beaded suit, carefully matched in pattern which is a Euro-concept, sells for more money than a painting by a well-known non-Indian artist. I mean, thousands. The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art was recently sued (2008) by a dealer for the return of such a shirt on grounds that the first owner stole it and sold it to the second owner who donated it to the Eiteljorg. The dealer, Robert Vandenberg, valued the shirt at $200,000.
Neglect of the homely: My usual example is the digging stick, the trowel the Indian woman used to harvest the prairie to supplement a meat diet. The digging stick of the woman was the equivalent of the claws of a grizzly, who eats the same diet, but one grizzly claw sells for a considerable sum while an authentic digging stick would be lucky to sell at all. If anyone realized what it was.
Profiteering by brokers, explainers, and consultants: People run websites promising to show artifact collectors have to evade the law about ownership. They don’t do that for free. Middlemen always capture as much profit as they can.
Gifts: My ceremonial mocs and dress were made specifically for me and given to me by the maker. So are they mine or not? How would I prove it? Must one demand a bill of sale from every tribal person who makes and gives or even already “owns” and gives an object to you? Some of the objects in the Scriver artifact collection were gifts. Others were not. There is no paper “European” evidence of either. This means that someone who produced proof of ownership could go into a museum and demand artifacts be returned. And they do.
Repatriation: Slightly different is the claim that a nation owns its artifacts and that Indians nations still exist and are sovereign. The Edmonton Royal Museum of Alberta already headed off this sort of event by returning all Sacred Bundles from the Scriver collection to elders of the Blackfoot tribes, making them responsible for ascertaining ownership. Immediately, the Piegans on the Montana side of the line claimed ownership. The tension is not always between cultures or countries, as it is with Greece demanding the return of their antiquities from the Getty Museum.
It will take centuries to sort all this out into a consensus. Maybe that’s what the Scriver Thunderpipe Bundle is waiting for. Then it will show up, having been hiding in plain sight the whole time.