It’s been one brush with history after another here in Kansas recently: pruning at one of the oldest settler cemeteries in Lawrence three weeks ago revealed the long sought-after gravesite for Walter B.S. Griswold, killed here by slave-state raiders from Missouri in 1863—one hundred and forty-three years ago this month. It’s the anniversary of the destruction of a fountain dedicated to Carry Nation in Wichita, Kansas (Nation once artfully applied her hatchet to the Eaton Hotel bar there years ago): the fountain was knocked over by the unwitting driver of a beer truck reversing. Last week, Kayakers near Clinton Lake, a reservoir in northeastern Kansas, discovered the skeleton of an American Mastodon. Mastodons were last seen in these parts over 10,000 years ago. Most significantly, however, the University of Kansas announced a comprehensive effort to return artifacts to Native American tribes in following with the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. “If the process goes smoothly,” said Thomas Foor, a University of Montana professor hired to manage the restoration process, “we can repatriate most of them in the next three to four months.”
White people in Kansas, as in any state west of the Mississippi, have a relatively fresh history. The state takes its name from the Kanza tribe of Native Americans which means, in a geographically astute fashion, “wind people.” These native people were promptly and methodically driven out by acts of Congress and the relentless push of settlers. Kansas was admitted into the Union in 1861 as a free state, straddling the border between slave ideologies of the south and free-state tendencies of the north.
Today, Lawrence houses one of the preeminent Native American universities in the country, Haskell Indian Nations University, an institution which began as a boarding school in the 1880s and once housed Jim Thorpe. Just down the road—and up a sizable hill—Kansas University’s collection of Native American artifacts holds 3,900 objects. Like many American universities, in the past Kansas University has had little regard for where these objects came from and whose heritage a university museum might be holding hostage. Not any more.
Acquired over years of faculty research and random donations from folks statewide, the university has amassed a diverse collection including everything from sacred ritual tools to everyday items like dishes and weaponry. In 1990, responding to growing pressure from increasingly vocal and rightfully outraged native peoples, the federal government passed NAGPRA, which, according to the Journal-World, “established the process for the return of human and sacred objects and pieces of cultural patrimony.”
Several months ago, students at the university protested that KU was ignoring the artifacts it housed, many of them rotting away in a museum that was closed in 2002 due to lack of funds. Not surprisingly, the unfolding of events at KU since is not unlike a process that has been taking place at schools and museums nationwide from the inception of NAGPRA sixteen years ago.
Though NAGPRA seems to be functioning well these days, when the law first passed it was uncertain how effective (or controversial) it would be. Martin Sullivan, director of the New York Museum in the 1980s recently told the Harvard Gazette, for instance, that both Native Americans and museum officials were very skeptical at first.
For native peoples, the law seemed to represent one more potentially subversive tool by which white people would afford themselves “the right” to claim legitimate ownership of Native American artifacts. “One the other side,” said Sullivan, “some museum officials feared the law was a license to steal. They had visions of U-Hauls being backed up to museum loading docks by Native Americans who would declare: ‘We're going to take what we want - too bad if there's nothing left.’”
Neither, in fact, has happened and the exchange at the University of Kansas indicates the level of cooperation taking place. “It’s very exciting to me that [KU is] making a commitment to fulfilling their NAGPRA obligations,” Bobbi Rahder, a KU lecturer of Indigenous Museum Studies said, “They’re taking this seriously.” Museums and universities and Native American tribes have all come to view NAGPRA as an important human rights law that takes a step toward healing the bloody past relationship between white people and those who were here before. “We are listening to what the tribes are telling us,” agreed Mary Adair, KU’s director of Anthropological Research and Cultural Collections, “We are responding to their requests. We’re doing the best we can.”
Already Foor has overseen the repatriation by KU of a sacred mask to a tribe in Canada. It comes as no surprise to learn that a recent survey, cited by Sullivan, shows that Native Americans now trust museums more than any other American institution, surpassing even churches.
Nothing, of course, can erase the deceptive, destructive policies employed by United States governments, soldiers and settlers over the past five hundred years. Nothing can undo that pain. But we live in the present and the present demands we learn from the past, lest we repeat, or in this case, indirectly reaffirm the mistaken paths we have trodden. “There was a whole way of thinking about museums that I hadn't gotten until [NAGPRA],” Sullivan said. “I think it has been the most extraordinary gift in our lifetimes to play some role in the healing of ancient wounds, in learning from Native Americans, and in forging relationships between Native American groups and museums.”
Kansas, goes the thinking, usually catches on to national trends only years after they have flitted from coast to coast, passing over the heartland without stopping to dilly-dally en route to New York City or Los Angeles or vice versa. NAGPRA, an important step in healing the historical ugliness of this nation, is one such movement. And in this case, later is definitely better than never.