A Good Day! Relations Built on Trust

My new friends Walter and his wife Kelly are supporters in spirit of this project called ‘Relations’ that I am working on currently – a video installation and documentary started with a commission from the de Young Museum. ‘Relations’ takes a fresh look at the state of relations between Native Nations and Museums today.

The ‘Relations’ documentary highlights the innovative Native American Programming Advisory Committee of the de Young Museum set up as a next step in developing relations with the large San Francisco’s Bay Area Native Arts community. A diverse range of native nations from around the world are represented here in the Bay Area. Together, with the Confederation of Ohlone Nations, these native representatives are all active members of their tribal and larger national Native American community. As the de Young Museum sets down a path of trust building with the native art community, the Advisory Committee struggles to overcome a past with the museum, and build a bridge to a better and brighter today and future.

My friend Walter wrote me yesterday, after reading my melancholy last post, to remind me of the coming sun. He reminds me to envision the coming Good that will flood our world as we are all moved to try something different, an attempt to shift our ways, small actions adding to small steps coming together in one big wave of Good will wash over the land.

In honor of Walter, I am writing about another person sharing a new way.

Today, on May 14th, 2010, a new federal regulation takes effect that will establish a process by which the ancestral remains of the Nation’s hundreds of tribes, Federally Recognized or Not, will be returned. At present, it’s estimated that more than 116,000 remains are currently stored on museum shelves.

I know for the Ohlone, return of remains has been high on the list – for some, the list – of what needs shifting. More than 12,00 Ohlone and California Indian remains are housed at U.C. Berkeley. We have asked for them back. Now there is a way.

Sproul Hall Ohlone-Salt Singers 2008, Color, by Catherine Herrera, Flor de Miel Fotos

Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Ph.D., writes in the Opinion section of The Denver Post from his experience as curator of Anthropology and NAGPRA officer for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science about the possibilities that collaborating with Native Nations has brought to his work, and can bring in the work of museum professionals around the nation in ‘Opening Americas’s skeleton closets‘.

At the same time, Colwell-Chanthaphonh addresses an alarmist faction of researchers fearful that museum collections could be emptied by the regulation, whose concerns are sounding an alert for a possible lawsuit.

Colwell-Chanthaphonh offers a salve – collaboration can bring even greater scientific information to the world than bones sitting on shelves. The relatives of these ancestors bring the spirit back into research of today.

By allowing American Indians the chance to honor their relatives, as everyone else is able, our ancestors’ spirits are sent on their way, while the spirit of collaboration remains here on earth to invigorate and evolve collaboration between Museums and Native Nations.

After all, research has marched on just fine for every other culture without their ancestors bones remaining outside the ground.

Colwell-Chanthaphonh makes the point that returning remains in fact satisfies the legislative intent of the 1990 Native Amerian Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), under which already 32,000 Native American remains have been returned.

Since 1994, the Secretary of the Interior has granted 82 right to return requests for “unaffiliated human remains” – those ‘that lack a demonstrable relationship to living kin or federally recognized tribes.

In California, given the thorny recognition issues, many California tribes, like the Ohlone, lack federal recognition but have state recognition. In practice, that means Ohlone can bury their relatives found on state land, but not those found on federal land.
Returning Ohlone, Miwok and other California nation’s ancestral remains will satisfy the intent of NAGPRA in a deeply meaningful way.

The action of returning will satisfy the hearts of many, many California native people, still a part of their tribes or not, who carry a deep responsibility to see their ancestors spirits put to rest.

As Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh points out, across all native people, in fact, among all people, honoring our relatives in their death is a vital human need.

This was the sentiment that brought together in prayer the Ohlone and Tribal Leaders and Traditional Salt Singers from the fourteen bands of Southern Paiutes and Chemehuevi who traveled from Arizona, Utah, Nevada and Southern California in January of 2008.

Tribal Chairwoman, Ann Marie Sayers, Mutson Ohlone, in front of Sproul Hall, 2008

The Salt Singers and tribal members were welcomed by Ann Marie Sayers, Mutson Ohlone Tribal Chairwoman, and joined by Ohlone community members in prayer and singing to mourn for the ancestral remains housed at UC Berkeley’s Sprout Hall, in storage for the Phoebe Hearst Museum just across the way.

Traveling from their homelands in Arizona, Utah, Nevada and Southern California, the Salt Singers sang the last four songs from a 142 song cycle that carried the extra weight of being mourning songs. These songs in particular support the spirits of the ancestral remains until they can be returned their homelands and bring closure as meaningful as any funeral to any other.

Vivienne Caron Jake, Kaibab Paiute and Matthew Leivas, Sr. Chemehuevi, are founders of the Salt Song Project and have conducted similar ceremonies at the Sherman Indian School Cemetery in Riverside, California, and other Indian boarding schools.

This time, now at Sprout Hall on U.C. Berkeley’s campus, the Salt Song Project came to bring public awareness to the appalling lack of collaboration and cooperation from the U.C. Berkeley administration, whose officers the Ohlone, California Native and other tribal groups felt was failing to meet their NAGPRA obligations, and not making direct communication with the tribes a priority. Matters reached a critical point when just the year before the group of professional curators working for the university with the tribes over years were replaced by what was commonly perceived as a team with much less experience as curators, some without any tribal dialogue experience at all.

The intertribal honoring by the Ohlone, Paiute and Chemehuevi has brought progress, the new regulations lay out a method for return. It is still the prayer of the Ohlone and California Native people that our ancestors be returned from U.C. Berkeley.

I can envision ceremonies of joy and happiness from American Indian people across the country, the spirits of ancestors dancing in celebration. Now, that does seem to fit the legislative intent of NAGPRA.

What drew me to the ‘Relations’ project was the desire of the museum and the committee to move beyond what relations we have all had in the past. To create new relations.

I commend the de Young Museum as the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and many, many more institutions who are working together with Native people, communities and artists to help in the healing process.

Uncomfortable histories we all must confront. Hey, it’s as upsetting to us as it is to you. Yet, as we know from all else in life, the only way is through.

To fearful factions, perhaps this new approach does require some internal consideration.
Yet, in the name of science and research, collaboration makes more sense on many levels.

What the work of the de Young, and countless other institutions, and situations, show us is that collaboration can bring greater knowledge, a better today and a good spirited future.

Native people can and do acknowledge the importance of museums and institutions that have valued and taken care in preserving, documenting and cataloging our ancestors and their lives. In some cases, these are our only clues back home so far gone was the destruction of culture. At the same time, research is enhanced, made more accurate with native knowledge and collaboration.

Speaking to each other we can get far, lawsuits and fear will bring the same old thing.

Its time for a new way.

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