As a Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for White Earth Nation, Jaime Arsenault has been doing repatriation work for nearly two decades. On Wednesday, she presided over a ceremony at the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology that returned two sacred scrolls and a pipe tomahawk to White Earth, which is an Anishinaabe nation (and its ancestors are part of Anishinaabe spiritual and community life). Arsenault described the process as long, but transformative.
“In the end, I think everyone involved is a little better off. You watch people change for the better, myself included,” she said.
The private morning ceremony took place in the Bowditch Room at the Peabody. A gift of wild rice was also given to museum staff. Birchbark scrolls, used in the performance of sacred rites, arrived at the Peabody through two museum exchanges in the early and mid-20th century, respectively, and were returned under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The museum does not know how it came to purchase the wooden-handled tomahawk with ribbon fringe, which is not the responsibility of NAGPRA but was approved for disposal by the University in January 2021.
“It’s good to bring these parents home,” Arsenault said, after signing the transfer documents. “As we near the end of this particular repatriation, in many ways this is just the beginning of our collaborative relationship. We can accomplish a lot together, and I am pleased to support the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology in its efforts as the institution moves forward with respect to future repatriations, collaborations and restitutions with a multitude of communities.
Each repatriation is unique, and this one took several years, delayed in part by the pandemic.
Professor Philip Deloria, who chairs Harvard’s NAGPRA advisory board, helped with the repatriation and took part in the ceremony.
“It’s a joyous time,” said the first tenured Native American history professor. “It’s been a long and good collaboration, and we’ve found ways to help each other. When we do these things, it reflects the care of the objects, that these objects return to where they are supposed to be. It is an accuracy, a rebalancing.
Art and architectural history professor Shawon Kinew was unable to attend the ceremony, but spoke about the repatriation as a member of the Peabody faculty executive committee, a member of the Ojibwa First Nation of ‘Onigaming, Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) and as someone brought up in the ceremonies to which scrolls and pipe were returned. She explained that many sacred objects were taken from their rightful custodians during the same period of history in which indigenous children were removed from their communities and sent to boarding schools.
“For me, the child of a residential school survivor in Canada, my father Tobasonakwutiban, a pipe-bearer and high-ranking member of the Mite’iwin, the repatriation of sacred scrolls and a grandfather’s pipe is powerful. . I grew up in these ceremonies. I cannot turn back time and protect my late father from the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of the church and declare or comfort him during the nights he spent alone without his parents. This repatriation reminds me that we, this current generation, can take care of the family that came before us, our ancestors. I think of it this way: through the return of ancestors like those who return home to the White Earth, we become parents and protectors of those from whom we descend – grandfather’s pipe, the scrolls – and we we went back. We always belonged to them, and now it’s restored,” she said.
Jane Pickering, director of William and Muriel Seabury Howells of the Peabody, called the repatriation “powerful”. “These are uplifting times for us at the museum, and I felt honored to be a part of them. We hope this is a beginning rather than an end, and an opportunity to build partnerships as the museum faces to its history and what it means to be ethical stewards of the collections in our care.
Arsenault and Patricia Capone, director and curator of Peabody NAGPRA, are working on a research paper on repatriation. It will examine the process of the dialogue around the return, how Indigenous knowledge drove the outcome, and how the return supports tribal sovereignty and well-being, with plans for publication in the fall.
“It was never right for the ancestors to live at the Peabody, where they were not visited, smudged or feasted on, in any way they should be cared for. So, in that sense, “we” as a community at Harvard have failed in our responsibility to care for “our museum collections.” We were also not doing the right thing for our indigenous students, who should feel they belong here, and cannot when their cultural heritage and the human remains of their ancestors are treated as objects of study like they continue to be,” Kinew said. “Through repatriation and building relationships with Indigenous Nations, we at Harvard are asking scholars to be better scholars, to do better work, to work with Indigenous Nations, to ask new questions and more interesting.”