Recently, NDSU was found to be in possession of a pipe dating back to 1914, where it was once owned by a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. This raised the question of what should be done with this stolen artifact.
As a part of Native American Heritage Month, NDSU hosted a discussion to answer this exact question. While it centered around what to do with artifacts, it is a part of a much larger discussion of who stewards history.
The panel answered these questions through their experience with Native American and Jewish artifacts. The rapid displacement of Native Americans from their land led to a large amount of artifacts being collected by the perpetrators of the theft. Likewise, the Holocaust intensity wasn’t only limited to murder but was preceded and accompanied by a mass seizure of Jewish belongings.
To reconcile these atrocities, the panel discussed emphasized how the material artifacts can’t be ignored. For collectors, they may be a neat piece of memorabilia. However, for the victims, they hold a much greater value. They offer a personal connection to their history and their ancestors that was otherwise denied and taken from them. It is also a problem of ownership. Denying them control of their own people’s belongings is damaging to their sovereignty and autonomy.
Jolie Graybill, NDSU’s Dean of Libraries, spoke on this issue pertaining to Native Americans. She mentioned how each of the 574 federally recognized tribes and the US government don’t always agree on what is considered sacred and the value that the objects hold. She was firm in her support of the returning artifacts.
Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), any organization that receives federal funding is required to return certain Native American cultural items, including human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony to their descendants or tribes.
Upon notification of the pipe and its accompanying documentation, the decision by President Cook to return it was clear. The return happened instantaneously compared to the months that it can take under NAGPRA. This rapid decision was gratefully received by members of the Standing Rock and other indigenous communities.
Leora Auslander from the University of Chicago also was a member of the panel. She talked about many of the similarities and differences with Jewish possessions in Europe during the Holocaust. She brought up many examples that show the nuance of the topic.
One example is a briefcase of a French Jew who died in Auschwitz. His son wanted to bring the suitcase home. It took five years for a settlement to be reached. The suitcase was to be on permanent loan to be displayed in a museum in France. The Auschwitz historical management believed the suitcase was important to put on display to be used to educate people on the horrors of the holocaust. They agreed to move it to France so it could still do this while remaining more accessible for the family.
Auslander personally disagreed with this decision. She sided with returning it to the family. A reason she gave for this was that the suitcase had its owner’s name tag. The suitcase was later discovered when the son recognized his father’s handwriting while visiting Auschwitz.
These artifacts may be ordinary objects like a suitcase, but for the descendants, they are important for remembering the ones they lost. As in the case of the Holocaust, the families may not have anything else.
The terminology of “artifact” was also questioned by Robert M. Ehrenreich, who is involved with the Holocaust Memorial Museum. His background in archelogy associates “artifacts” with civilizations long forgotten to history. He suggested that a world such as “belongings” may be more appropriate and respectful to the descendants who still remain.