Law and museum policy come together in efforts to repatriate Arapaho headdress

At the Ethete powwow this summer, the University of Wyoming steal culture The team was honored for their work by bringing Alyson White Eagle Sounding Sides to London to view Chief Yellowcalf’s headdress. White Eagle Sounding Sides is one of Yellowcalf’s descendants and the first Arapaho to see his headdress in the British Museum in London in a hundred years.

“It was emotional because I thought at that time, you know, early in the reserve era, people, especially our chiefs, were just doing their best to make sure our people were going to carry on, that we were going to survive,” she said.

White Eagle Sounding Side explained that the headdress is more than an object, and the word “headdress” does not do justice to what Chief Yellowcalf’s headdress means to her and the Arapaho people.

She said the headdress was removed from Chief Yellowcalf’s possession while filming Covered Wagons, a film set in the 1930s. Some say it was a gift to someone in film production, but White Eagle Sounding Sides said that’s not what they hear from their community.

“I just don’t believe… I find it hard to believe that this headdress was something he was willing to give away, considering how important this headdress is to our people,” she said.

It’s hard to know exactly what happened, but going forward there are a lot of unknowns regarding the nuts and bolts to get the fairing back. Stealing Culture is trying to help. It’s about a team of two professors from the University of Wyoming who work to unravel the complicated relationship between how museums operate and the laws that govern repatriation.

Repatriation is the recovery of old items stolen from museums, much like what happens with Chief Yellowcalf’s headdress.

Alyson White Eagle Sounding Sides

Nichole Crawford (left), Alyson White Eagle Sounding Sides (middle), Darrel Jackson (right) at Ethete Celebration Summer 2022 on the Wind River Reservation.

The Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone, the two tribes of the Wind River Reservation, have been searching for cultural artifacts for years. The locally produced film in 2017 “What Was Ours” explores how many sacred and cultural objects were removed from the reserve years ago, to lie undisplayed in the basements of non-Indigenous institutions, much like Chief Yellowcalf’s headdress.

Nicole Crawford is part of the team and is a curator at American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming. She said museums are only beginning to come to grips with their operating history.

“Museums are collecting institutions, and they really were formed on a colonial basis, weren’t they? Someone was walking around and collecting things. Think of Napoleon in the Louvre or the British Museum,” a- she declared. “There’s a joke that goes, ‘We named something that sounds British but really isn’t and that’s the British Museum. “”

She said many curators are now looking at their collections and asking important questions about the provenance of objects and the ethics of their acquisition.

“But it takes time and money to look at these things. And a lot of museums don’t have those resources,” Crawford said.

One of the problems faced by curators is that it is difficult to know who to contact about an item, especially if the item’s history is unknown or disputed.

“So you can’t just call Kenya and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got an item. Do you want it back? Who are you calling? Who can claim these things? And that’s where Stealing Culture helps to think about these issues,” she said. “Can an individual claim something? Does it have to be a community such as a tribe?

Darrel Jackson, a law professor at the University of Wyoming, is also part of Stealing Culture. He said that in the world of museums, the history of a particular object is called provenance. It indicates whether an object has been acquired, stolen or gifted. But historically, museums have overlooked these types of details.

“That’s something the law would never do. The law has the equivalent which is massively ahead of the provenance, it’s called the title. You have the title of your car, you could have the title of your house. But I can literally go to a courthouse and follow your title, back to the origin. And if I can’t, we call it stolen, and we’ll sue you for it,” he said. .

Jackson said that’s where Stealing Culture comes in. They want to help navigate protocols from different nations, countries and institutions. All of this can be very difficult to move.

“Our goal has been to try to be a bridge between analyzes between individuals and organizations, even between countries, because we have this kind of neutral third-party access point where we can insert into the dialogue of a way that sometimes two opposing parties can’ said.

Stealing Culture has consulted on projects in Europe, Japan, Australia and Rapa Nui, talking to museums about policy governing repatriation. Jackson said he noticed at this point that museums had one of two options moving forward.

“The international dialogue surrounding repatriation is pulling museums in a direction that they can either step up and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to fix this. Or they can step back and say, ‘We want to fight this,'” he said.

Chief Yellowcalf's headdress sits on a table.  One of his descendants stands behind.
Alyson White Eagle Sounding Sides with its ancestor, Chief Yellowcalf’s headdress, on a trip to the British Museum.

Stealing Culture went with Alison White Eagle Sounding Sides to the British Museum to see Chief Yellowcalf’s headdress. This is the first repatriation on which they have worked so intimately.

Since White Eagle Sounding Sides returned from London, she has been researching how the coif got there in hopes of proving the coif’s provenance or title, and dreams of its eventual return.

“I got into law because I love my people. I’m so proud to be Arapaho. I’m very lucky to be Arapaho. And so this idea of ​​bringing this headdress home is for the well-being of my people, the healing of my people,” she said.

She said that during her research, she would speak with ceremonial leaders and the tribal council to decide on the way forward, an integral part of the repatriation process.

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