Special to ICT
There was something wrong, Victoria Compton thought, about the items being sent out into the world in a Store-Closing-Everything-Must-Go sale.
The ancestral objects shouted “Indigenous” in "very British" Victoria, the capital of the Canadian province of British Columbia, whose opulent Empress Hotel, Parliament building and street names are reminders of 19th century British Empire’s expansion.
Among the ancestral objects up for sale: hand-woven baskets, one a century old and made using tule, feathers and porcupine quills; moccasins with an intricate, beaded flower design; fur-lined leather mittens; a carved serving spoon; and a baby carrier.
Each object was a work of art, intricately woven or carved using techniques and materials that had been employed by Indigenous people in the Northwest for millennia.
“As a mom, the baby carrier was particularly heartbreaking to me,” said Compton, about seeing the objects in the soon-to-be-shuttered store.
“This antique object had been one family’s way of caring for their baby,” she said. “It was loved, well-used, well-crafted. Someone clearly worked hard to make this into a beautiful and durable object. It resonated with me…
”The baby carrier represented to me the unimaginable loss of generations of Native American children, and their mothers’ grief,” she said.
Compton,an economic development agency director on San Juan Island in northwest Washington state who is not Native, said she was able to buy 12 objects. Once home, she said she realized she couldn’t keep them.
“They don’t want to live here,” she told ICT. “They want to live with the people who crafted them.”
Compton then embarked on a journey to return the objects to their Indigenous nations of origin, one of a growing number of private collectors seeking to repatriate objects of cultural, historic, or traditional importance.
Some collectors, like Compton, want to repatriate the items because they believe ancestral objects belong with the cultures from which they originated. Some want to repatriate objects that have no clear provenance — or history of ownership — leaving open the possibility they were obtained by unscrupulous or illegal means.
Under the 1990 federal law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known as NAGPRA, museums, universities and government agencies that receive federal funds are required to return human remains and culturally significant and sacred objects to the tribal nations or lineal descendants.
So far, more than 83,000 human remains and 1.7 million funerary objects have been repatriated, according to a February 2022 report from the Government Accountability Office.
But for private collectors and others who have no obligation under NAGPRA to return ancestral objects to their cultures of origin, knowing how or where to start can be a puzzle.
“I understand that repatriation is a huge issue and expense for tribes and I don't want to add to that burden if it's not an item that should be returned,” said Mary Klinkel, a non-Native resident of Green Valley, Arizona. She is seeking to repatriate a beaded leather case, believed to be from the Southwest, that she has in her possession.
“If there is a group of Indigenous experts that can look at photos and make decisions about whether items need to be repatriated or not, that could be a big help in the process.”
A good place to start is a local tribal museum, said Emily Miller, senior curator of the Tulalip Tribes’ Hibulb Cultural Center and Natural History Preserve on the Tulalip Reservation near Seattle.
The National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers website, has an online directory of 74 tribal museums and cultural centers in 23 states, and museums may be able to consult by email using photographs and background information about the object, Miller said.
Museums can often help identify or narrow down the object’s place of origin and, if necessary, direct the person to a tribal nation that could identify it. The tribal museum and/or tribal nation can also provide guidance on the most appropriate way to return the object.
“A lot of the time, we see people who have had items in their families, and often it’s an ethnographic piece or archeological piece,” Miller told ICT.
“We usually ask for pictures and background on the object to make sure it’s fitting for here – that it originated with one of the signatory treaty tribes [of the Tulalip Tribes],” Miller said. “If it’s not fitting for here, we’ll try to send them to a place that is more fitting for the object. If we can tell that it’s from, for example, the Northeast or the Southwest, we would send them to a tribe in that area so they can get the object back to them.”
That’s the guidance Klinkel was looking for. She discovered that she lives just 125 miles or so from Ak-Chin HimDak EcoMuseum and Archives in Maricopa, and 146 miles from the San Carlos Apache Cultural Center in Peridot.
Klinkel read a recent New York Times article about repatriation and saw a photograph of an object that resembled an object she has in her possession.
“One of the items was called a whetstone case, and it reminded me of a small, beaded leather case I had received as a gift from my sister about 20 years ago,” Klinkel told ICT. “I called her to ask where she got it, and she had purchased it at a flea market in Colorado from some men who said it was from a trading post in New Mexico. There was no more provenance than that. But I was uneasy having it, in case it should be returned to a tribe.”
Klinkel reached out to an Indigenous friend from college, who looked at photos of the object and thought it was probably a piece sold by the artist for trade purposes, not for ceremony, Klinkel said.
Klinkel has some resources available to her if the object did originate in New Mexico. The Institute of American Indian Arts Museum is located in Santa Fe, as is the Poeh Museum. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is located in Albuquerque.
Jackie Ferry is tribal historic preservation officer for the Samish Indian Nation in Anacortes, Washington, a seaside community from which state ferries depart and arrive daily enroute to and from the San Juan Islands.
She said cultural departments and historic preservation officers at tribal nations and local historical museums can help individuals seeking to repatriate ancestral objects.
Ferry has repatriated objects to other tribal nations — among them some sandals that originated in New Mexico and somehow found their way to the Samish Nation’s collection — and she’s helped individuals repatriate objects as well.
When she gets a call regarding an object, she asks that the individual email photos to her with as much information about it as possible, such as when and where it was acquired and any identifying information on labels or receipts.
The object may be fragile, so “it’s often best that they leave the object in place,” she said.
“We’ve had people bring objects to us,” Ferry said. “Maybe it was something that a parent had and handed down to them, or it’s something they acquired on their own. Either way, they’re motivated by wanting it to go back to the right place.”
An appraiser can help
Miller said an appraiser who specializes in Native art can also help the holder of an ancestral Indigenous object identify or narrow down its place of origin. The International Society of Appraisers’ website has a list of Native art experts.
Compton searched on the Internet for an expert in Native basketry and came across Natalie Linn’s name and contact information. Linn, of Portland, Oregon, has been collecting and studying Native basketry for 50 years and is frequently featured on the PBS program "Antiques Roadshow."
“Send me some images and I’ll see what I can do,” Linn emailed Compton.
Linn determined that the baby carrier originated from the Simpcw First Nation in Barriere, British Columbia, some 180 miles northeast from Compton’s home in northwest Washington state. She’s now arranged to take the item to them in May.
“This makes me really happy,” Compton told ICT. “I feel like I have the opportunity to address a problem that my ancestors helped set up.”
Lead photo: Victoria Compton of Washington State holds a baby carrier that she is set to return to the Simpcw First Nation in Barriere, British Columbia, in May 2023. The baby carrier is one of several Indigenous items she bought in a store that was going out of business in Victoria, B.C., and has decided to return. "The baby carrier represented to me the unimaginable loss of generations of Native American children, and their mothers' grief," Compton told ICT. (Photo courtesy of Victoria Compton)