Here's how Utah museums are working to bring Native American views into their gallery spaces

A recent change in federal regulations has led the Natural History Museum of Utah — and institutions across the country — to refocus on returning to tribes the Native American ancestry they hold.

The update to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) also sheds light on the cultural consensus and collaboration between museums and diverse groups of people.

For example, over the past two years, said senior curator Alisa McCusker, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts has increased its consultations with advisory groups when developing programs.

One example is last year's exhibition on Polynesian tattoo art. The advisory board for this exhibition helped design the exhibition and ensured that the images included in it were presented in a dignified manner.

UMFA has more than 200 works by Native Americans in its collection, McCusker said – and as far as she knows, UMFA has never repatriated any works, and nothing in its collection would fall under NAGPRA rules.

Currently, UMFA is showing two works by Indigenous artists, photographer Russel Albert Daniels and artist Gilmore Scott. Both are new acquisitions, she said, and “a conscious attempt to expand the presence in our Native Voices collection.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Monsoons Dazzle over the Bears Ears by Gilmore Scott at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, February 14, 2024.

UMFA is not interested in purchasing historical works, McCusker said, because the museum cannot be sure how these items were acquired.

“What we can do to expand representation is to acquire works by contemporary artists, where we can talk to the artists, learn from them and pay them directly for their work,” McCusker said.

Daniels said he felt comfortable working with the UMFA because he had seen their commitment to Indigenous communities. The museum acquired two of his color aerial photographs of landscapes depicting the megadrought in Utah and the West. He also gave a talk at the museum in January about his family ties, how he grew up and how this affected his life and work.

Daniels said he was honored to be represented at the museum and believes museums are still a good educational tool as long as they operate with consent and cultural consultation.

“Our country or our culture wants to hide from our past because it is a terrible past,” he said. “To move forward, to overcome these issues and to heal together, it starts with talking about the past – what this land and European settlers, including Mormons and European settlers, did to Native peoples.”

How museums react

Updating NAGPRA “gives us the opportunity to bring home the ancestors we didn't have before,” said Alex Greenwald, curator of ethnography at NHMU and assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Utah.

In December, the Biden administration updated the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) — a revision aimed at expediting the return of human remains and burial objects, sacred or culturally important Native American objects, to indigenous groups.

The new regulations, Greenwald said, “now allow us to do repatriation based on geography rather than cultural affiliation,” which was a “pretty high bar.”

The update is intended to “streamline” the repatriation process and strengthen the role of indigenous communities when institutions make these decisions, said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold a U.S. Cabinet post.

Decades after NAGPRA became law in 1990, the ancestors of more than 110,000 Native Americans, Native Hawaiians and Alaska Natives were still in the possession of museums, universities and federal agencies, according to ProPublica.

According to ProPublica's database, there are 416 ancestral remains at NHMU that have not been made available for repatriation, the largest number at any public facility in Utah. Many of those ancestors were found in Utah, although nearly 100 have no location information and a dozen come from surrounding states, according to federal data compiled by the nonprofit.

NHMU said 168 of those ancestors are being held for federal authorities and that it has “decision-making authority” over the other 248 ancestors.

According to a ProPublica investigation, the museum has the 42nd largest number of unrepatriated Native American ancestral remains in the country out of some 600 federally funded institutions that have reported possession of such human remains to the Interior Department.

Across the country, museums are adjusting, repositioning, and in some cases even eliminating entire exhibits as they deal with the new NAGPRA updates. As the signage states, NHMU “does not display human remains or items related to burials” and has not removed any items from displays.

Greenwald estimates that NHMU has “just under a million” items culturally linked to indigenous peoples in North America and elsewhere. The museum does not purchase items for its collections, with the exception of commissioned works by Indigenous artists in their art market.

And Greenwald said the museum requires donors to provide extensive documentation to prove the items are being collected in a “legal and ethical manner.” She noted that Indigenous artists often use tags on their artwork; Dream catchers for sale in the museum's gift shop bear such labels.

As a recent example of consent and collaboration, Greenwald described NHMU's Native Voices Initiative, a federally funded initiative that includes more than 150 hours of consultation with 14 different tribes, including the eight tribes recognized by the state of Utah. The project highlights cultural artifacts, stories, traditions and people of the tribes.

In creating the exhibit, Greenwald said the museum curators learned from the Indigenous Advisory Council details they might have otherwise overlooked, such as the importance of housing it on the main floor or in a circular space. For example, when visitors cross a seam that separates the museum from the rest of the museum, they are greeted by local voices and languages.

Discussions about repatriation also extend to other forms, such as the decolonization of museums – broadening perspectives beyond just one dominant culture, namely that of white Europeans. UMFA's McCusker said such moves are signs that museums are changing along with their audiences, and “that's a good thing.”

“If we truly want to be the bearers of humanity — which museums have been intended to do since their original idea,” McCusker said, “then we really, truly need to represent all the people we are in a way that is respectful and welcoming.”

Anna Harden

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