Legal Briefs - Two Brief Observations & NAGPRA Updates

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by Ron McCoy

This column often reports developments involving questions about the rightful possession of cultural material.  Dealer, collector, curator, or merely curious; no matter where or when the material you’re in interested comes from, this is a knotty topic.  Whether rooted in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) Congress passed in 1990, 1970 UNESCO Convention, other treaties or legislation, various initiatives and endeavors, cultural heritage issues aren’t going away.  Not today, not next year, probably not ever.

So kudos to Robert Gallegos, Kate Fitz Gibon, and all of the folks involved in ATADA’s Voluntary Returns Program.[1]  They are making a good faith effort to get ahead of the cultural heritage/repatriation curve, in an environment fraught with pitfalls and uncertainties.

The final observation to be made before tackling NAGPRA updates concerns provenance, an object’s verifiable history.  If you visited the reinstallation of ancient Classical art at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades this spring, perhaps you noted not what you saw but what you didn’t see: the larger-than-life Getty Kouros kouros is a Greek term applied to one of about a dozen surviving similarly-themed free-standing, usually nude sculptures of young men – a sculpture so famous, so wedded to the institution itself that it is known, for better or worse, by that eponymous moniker.  But the piece’s provenance problems[2] are such that its identifying label, prior to the disappearance into the labyrinthian world of museum storage, read: “Greece (?) about 530 B.C. or modern forgery.”[3]

 “It was oddly refreshing to see a museum frankly acknowledge the difficulty even the most knowledgeable among us can face around a work of art,” Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight observed.  Knight also noted, removing the kouros from public view “might be a reasonable decision, but it leaves the public in the dark.  Transparency is key.”[4]

Words to live by.  Which is why the provenance provided by the State Historical Society of North Dakota for the object mentioned in the third of the NAGPRA notices summarized below caught my attention: “On an unknown date, an unknown number of cultural items were removed from an unknown site in an unknown location.”

 There, in a nutshell, is a straightforward, this-is-what-we-know summary of the provenance of more works of art than most of us might care to contemplate. Just as it is unwise to ignore an object’s story, it is also unwise to make more of a piece’s history than the evidence warrants.  Establishing a piece’s provenance – even merely attempting to do so – is an act not only of self-education for tribal art dealers, collectors, curators, and researchers but an activity that honors the heritage of objects by attempting to reconstruct their passage through time.  

With that, on to the business of trying to catch up on NAGPRA’s notices of intent to repatriate.  Appearing as needed in the Federal Register, these notices represent agreements tribal claimants and institutions broadly defined as “museums” reach regarding rightful possession of objects falling into certain categories.  These categories of interest here are sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony.[5] A notice tells us the party or parties to whom the museum intends returning the object(s) absent the filing of a competing claim.  The dates given are those on which the notices appeared in the Federal Register, and quotes are drawn from those notices unless otherwise indicated.


Pueblo of Acoma Headgear, Ceremonial Pot, and Prayer Sticks:
Sacred Objects and Objects of Cultural Patrimony

Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Denver, CO (Aug. 28, 2017): Between 1954-1964, collectors obtained ten objects from dealers in Santa Fe, Taos, and Denver that originally came from the Pueblo of Acoma: three “Katysina Uuwaa’ka’ [friends or masks], a ceremonial pot …used to keep ceremonial paint and to collect rain water to make ceremonial medicine for curing ceremonies,” two more vessels “used in kivas for ceremony,” and four prayer sticks, all later donated to the museum.[6]  Classified as sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony, the pieces were slated for repatriation to the Pueblo Acoma in New Mexico.


Two Chippewa Wooden Pipe Stems:
Sacred Object

Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, OH (July 24, 2017): Sometime between the mid-1920s and mid-1930s two wooden pipe stems were taken from Wisconsin’s Lac du Falmbeau Chippewa Reservation.  One “carved into a spiral shape and trimmed with loom-woven beadwork” is decorated with strips of beaver fur; the other “is carved with spool and ovoid shapes that are decorated with brass tacks, linear abstract designs on one side.”  These pipes, “combined with a ceremonial Warrior Drum, comprise an ensemble of sacred objects that are needed by traditional Lac du Flambeau Chippewa religious leaders for the practice of Native American religions by their present-day adherents.”  The museum decided these sacred objects ought to be turned over to the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians of the Lac du Flambeau Reservation in Wisconsin. 


Sisseton Can Otina (Tree or Forest Dweller) Figure:
Object of Cultural Patrimony

State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck, ND (June 14, 2017): Never accessioned or catalogued by the museum, an undescribed wooden figurine was “found in a box dating to the 1950s that was used for storage of items” at the museum.[7]  The “Can Otina [Tree or Forest Dweller] was identified by a Dakota spiritual leader as belonging to the Sisitunwan [Sisseton].”  The museum announced its intention to transfer this object of cultural patrimony to the Upper Sioux Community in Minnesota.


Yavapai-Apache Painted Hide:
Sacred Object and Object of Cultural Patrimony

Heard Museum, Phoenix, AZ (June 14, 2017): In 1907 the agent at Arizona’s Camp Verde bagged three deer on a hunt.[8]  Agency policeman Tonto Jack decorated one buckskin with a painting for the agent, “a pictographic story that contains a good deal of symbology, mythological figures, Indians, horses, cougars, snakes and, of course, a deer.”[9] Displayed for many years at a Phoenix library, the hide was donated to the museum in 2014.

Representatives from three Apache reservations declared the piece was “made for a specific use [unspecified] in a specific ceremony [also unspecified]” practiced today “as it has always been practiced.”[10]  The museum decided Tonto Jack’s painting is both a sacred object and object of cultural patrimony which belongs to the Yavapai-Apache Nation of the Camp Verde Indian Reservation.


Quinault Tamahnousing Figures:
Sacred Objects

Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, IL (June 14, 2017):  In 1893 the museum received “a red painted wooden anthropomorphic figure with rattles around its neck” and “a cedar bark figure with attached rattles” collected the previous year on northwestern Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.[11]  The museum determined these are tamahnousing figures,[12] “spirit helpers….necessary today for the revitalization and present-day practice of Quinault traditional religion,”  and agreed to transfer them to the Quinault Tribe of the Quinault Reservation in Washington.


Reno-Sparks Indian Colony (Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe) Baskets:
Objects of Cultural Patrimony

Placer County Museums, Auburn, CA (May 3, 2017):  Between 1949-1986 the museum received nine items from donors in northeastern California’s Modoc and Placer counties: a burden basket, six water jars, parching tray, and winnowing tray.  The parching tray, winnowing basket, and four water jars came from the estate of a physician who “often received baskets [from local Indians] for medical services and…continued collecting through purchases and gifts.” The notice does not describe the evidence relied on for determining that the baskets are objects of cultural patrimony belonging to the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony in Nevada.


Comanche Peyote Fan:
Sacred Object

Worcester Museum of Natural History d.b.a. EcoTarium, Worcester, MA (May 3, 2017): Under circumstances unknown the museum acquired a peyote fan “made of eagle feathers, hide, and small beadwork.”  Consultation with the Comanche Nation revealed “the feathers were cut, or ‘narrowed’, in a manner that is similar to traditional Comanche treatment of feathers and distinct from the fuller treatments seen in most Kiowa fans.”  In addition, the “beadwork also follows traditional Comanche color schemes and patterns.”  The museum declared the fan a sacred object destined for repatriation to the Comanche Nation in Oklahoma.


Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) False Face and Cornhusk Masks:
Sacred Objects

Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Denver, CO (Mar. 13, 2017): Between 1972-1983 donors gave the museum six Haudenosaunee masks acquired between 1959 and 1968; four of the masks are associated with the confederacy’s Four False Society, two with its Corn Husk Mask Society, and all came from upstate New York’s Onondaga Reservation.  The sale, trade, collection, and display of such masks has long fueled cultural controversy.  That an unknown number of similar masks were made for sale or for museum could be seen as undercutting claims about all of the masks inherently sacred quality.  However, the long-established Haudenosanee official position on the matter reflects a fundamentally different, conflicting view.[13]  As sacred objects masks were slated for repatriation Onondaga Nation in New York.


Anishinaabe (Ojibwe/Chippewa) Midewiwin Materials:
Sacred Object

Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Denver, CO (Mar. 7, 2017):  This summary conflates three notices pertaining about related pieces in the collection of the same museum that appeared in three notices published on the same day in the Federal Register.  about objects associated with the Midewiwin (Mide) – or Grand Medicine Society religion – of the Anishinaabe[14] that appeared in the Federal Register on the same day. 

In 1975, researcher-writer Karen Daniels Petersen, [15] who spent many summers among the Anishinaabes, received a water drum broken into six pieces “for religious reasons” that was removed from “an unknown wooded location” some fifty years earlier.[16] (The notice describes the disassembled drum as “ceremonially significant today because of the etchings on the wood that contain a song or story.”)[17]  Petersen sold the drum to collectors who gave it to the museum in 1976, which agreed to give the drum to the Grand Portage Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe in Minnesota.   (For Petersen and other Mide pieces, see below and the summary of the Jan. 12, 2017 notice.) 

The same year Petersen obtained the drum she also purchased six objects associated with the Midewiwin religion – baton, medicine bag, rattle, post, and two bird carvings – and sold the array to collectors who donated it to the museum.  “Bird figures and their posts are used to mark Mide lodges and to signify a family or society affiliation,” the notice explains. “Similarly, rattles, medicine bags, and batons have an integral role in Midewiwin’s current ceremonial practices.”  The museum felt these objects belong with the White Earth Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe in Minnesota.

In 1983 the museum was given “a dream symbol…a sacred object related to dreams that could be used in the Grand Medicine Society or Midewiwin.” The donors purchased the piece five years earlier from a dealer, who obtained it from the collector who received it from a resident of the Bois Forte Indian Reservation in Minnesota.   The museum agreed this was a sacred object which belongs to the Bois Forte Band (Nett Lake) of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe


Meskwaki (Sac & Fox) Grizzly Bear Claw Necklace:
Object of Cultural Patrimony

American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY (Feb. 24, 2017): In 1901, William Jones,[18] a part-Fox anthropologist trained by the renowned Franz Boas, collected a necklace from an unidentified person in east-central Iowa that consists of twenty-seven grizzly bear claws separated by trios of blue glass beads with an otter pelt hanging at the back.  The museum agreed the necklace “has ongoing historical, traditional, and cultural importance” to the Meskwaki and should be placed with the Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa.


Anishinaabe (Chippewa) Midewiwwin (Grand Medicine Society) Items:
Sacred Objects and/or Unassociated Funerary Objects

Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Denver, CO (Jan. 12, 2017): In either 1962 or 1963  John Mink,[19] an Anishinaabe fourth-degree Midewiwin priest on central Minnesota’s Mille Lacs Indian Reservation, died.  His compatriots, following custom, buried objects with Mink reflective of his involvement in the Mide religion, including two birchbark scrolls, a pair of “invitation sets,” two medicine bags, and a “vessel containing ceremonial stain.”  By 1964, these items had made their way from John Mink’s grave into the possession of Karen Daniels Petersen.  (See the March 7, 2017 notices conflated above.)

Sometime between 1950 and 1964, Petersen bought a ceremonial post, twenty shells, and a ceremonial drumstick from Ole Sam, an Anishinaabe, who obtained them in 1960 upon the death of his Mide priest father Mike Sam.  In addition, in 1961 Petersen acquired a birchbark scroll from Annie Sam, “a rare fourth-degree Medewiwin female priest,” and a medicine bag from Maggie Skinaway.  In 1976, Petersen sold everything but the scroll to collectors who donated them to the museum soon after Petersen gifted it the scroll.

The material taken from John Mink’s grave qualified as unassociated funerary objects under NAGPRA; the remaining items were deemed sacred objects; all were earmarked for transfer to the Mille Lacs Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.


Click for Endnotes

[1] “Artifacts Being Returned to Native Americans by Art Dealers,” Ruidoso NM] News (Mar. 15, 2018),  For details see “Voluntary Returns Program,” Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association (2016),

[2] “Papers regarding its history of ownership have long been known to have been faked, so where it came from its unknown,” art critic Christopher Knight points out.  He also notes the kouros’ “pastiche of myriad stylistic details, which bring together features recognized from different artistic centers at different times in a work unlike any other known to exist.”  Not surprisingly, to more than a few well-informed, discerning observers the piece “just doesn’t look right.”  Christopher Knight, “Something’s Missing from the Newly Reinstalled Antiquities Collection at the Getty Villa,” Los Angeles Times (April 19, 2018),  The piece figures prominently in Jason Felch and Ralph Frammalino, Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).

[3] At least as late as 1993 “the Getty still identifies [the kuoros] as dating from circa 530 BC” for purposes of an exhibit dealing with the piece’s authenticity.  Christopher Knight, “Art Review: The Jury’s Still Out on Getty Kouros: Statue Is Either a Greek Artifact – or a Classic Fake,” Los Angeles Times (Jan. 23, 1993),

[4] Knight, “Something’s Missing.”

[5] The other NAGPRA categories are: human remains and associated or unassociated funerary objects.

[6] The materials came from Byron Harvey III, William S. Dutton of the La Posada Gift Shop (Santa Fe), the Taos Book Shop (Taos), Ehrich Kohlberg of Kohlberg’s Antiques and Indian Arts (Denver), and Julius Gans of Southwest Arts and Crafts (Santa Fe).

[7] See James H. Howard, “The Tree Dweller Cults f the Dakota,” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 68, No. 268 (April-June 1955), 169-174.  For what may be a related Yankton carving at the Detroit Institute of Arts see “Tree Dweller Effigy, ca. 1850,”

[8] Steve Ayers, “A 105-Year-Old Hunting Tale: How a Tenderfoot Earned Some Respect,” [Camp Verde, AZ] Bugle (Oct. 30, 2012), recounts some of the hide’s history and includes a photograph of the piece at

[10] According to the notice: “The last part of the ceremony for which this item was made, following the death of the individual for whom it was made, involves placing the hide in a secure location away from human habitation. Failing to put this hide away properly after its more active use or removing this item from its resting place, thus interrupting the unfolding ritual, poses great danger to those who come in contact with it.  Putting the item away properly can only be accomplished by individuals who have been specifically trained to perform this task, and is the only way to restore physical possession of the item to the Creator and to begin completion of the ceremony. The Creator is the only One who has the right to possess this type of cultural item after its use by humans. The traditional cultural authorities who have been consulted have determined that this [hide]…must now be properly put away.”

[11] The figures were collected by Reverend Myron Eells, a student of Coast Salish culture.  See “Online Books by Myron Eells,” The Online Books Page (University of Pennsylvania, n.d.),  Eells acquired the pieces for display for display in the state’s exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. 

[12] The term tamahnousing “is derived from the old Chinook language…. [and in general] means anything supernatural either among good or bad spirits….[A] tamahnous man is one who, by his incantations, can influence the spirits – a medicine man; a tamahnous stick or stone, or painting, is one in which the spirits are believed to dwell, or which is sometimes used in performing their incantations.” Myron Eells, The Indians of Puget Sound: The Notebooks of Myron Eels, George Pierre Castile, ed. (Seattle and Walla Walla: University of Washington Press and Whitman College, 1985), 361.

[13] “Haudenosaunee Confederacy Announces Policy on False Face Masks,” Akwesasne Notes, Vol. 1 (Spring 1995), on “Native American Technology and Arts” (n.d.),

[14] For an early ethnographic treatment of the religion, see W[alter]. J. Hoffman, “The Midēʹwiwin or ‘Grand Medicine Society’ of the Ojibwa,” in Seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1885-1886 (Washington, D.C., 1891), 143-300, also available via

[15] Karen Daniels Petersen (1910-2007) is probably best known in the tribal art community as the author of books dealing with Plains Indian ledger art, although she also published on the Anishinaabe.  According to the notice: “In the 1950s, Karen Petersen and her husband Sydney Petersen spent their summers visiting Anishinaabe communities, camping out and buying crafts from tribal members. When she was able to sell items, she sold them through churches in St. Paul, MN. She also collected Anishinaabe objects for the Science Museum of Minnesota as a staff member from 1958 to 1964.”

[16] One does not need to engage in wild conjecture to assume, given the brief description of the circumstances under which the drum was retrieved, that it may well have come from a burial site.

[17] For Midewiwin iconography, its import and significance, see Selwyn Dewdney, The Sacred Scrolls of the Southern Ojibway (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1975),

[18] William Jones (1871-1909) was a complex, utterly fascinating figure in the development of anthropology as a field of study.  Born in Oklahoma to a white father and Fox mother, Jones graduated from Harvard and went on to become the first Native American to earn a doctorate in anthropology (under Franz Boas at Columbia University).  Jones was at the crest of his career wave when some the Ilongots among whom he was doing fieldwork killed him.  See Henry Milner Rideout, William Jones: Indian, Cowboy, American Scholar, and Anthropologist in the Field (New York: Fredrick A. Stokes, 1911); Kiara M. Vigil, “The Death of William Jones: Indian, Anthropologist, Murder Victim,” in Ned Blackhawk and Isaiah Lorado Wilner, Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boaz (New Haven: Yale Unviersity Press, 2018), 209-230.

[19] John Mink was a traditional healer.  Brett Larson, “Chiminising Elder Shaped by Cultural Ways,” (May 18, 2005), Mille Lacs Band of Objibwe,  For a photograph of John Mink, circa 1930, see “Rabbit robe from Mille Lacs Trading Post held by John Mink, Chief Me-gee-see, and Dick Gahbowh” from the Minnesota Historical Society Collections at