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Pomo Basket (NMNH catalog no. E418874A)

As the fifteen year anniversary (in 2005) of the constitution of the Smithsonian's Repatriation Review Committee begins, it would seem a propitious time to review the history of its formation, its progress, and the plans for its future.

Committee members

Members of the Repatriation Review Committee with Cristián Samper, Director, National Museum of Natural History and Jonathan Coddington, Associate Director for Research and Collections. From left to right: Gordon L. Yellowman Sr., Jonathan Coddington, O. Roland McCook Sr., T.J. ferguson, John F.C. Johnson, Jane E. Buikstra, Andrea A. Hunter, Cristián Samper. National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, 2009.

In order to understand the formation and structure of the Committee and its mandate, one must review the legislation that created it. The National Museum of the American Indian Act, 20 U. S. C. 80q (PL 101-185) was signed into law in 1989. The law addressed the repatriation of Native American human remains and funerary objects at the Smithsonian Institution. It required the Smithsonian to inventory the collections of human remains and funerary objects and, if cultural affiliation was established, offer the collections for repatriation. As part of the repatriation process the law required the Secretary of the Smithsonian, within 120 days of the enactment of the legislation, to appoint a "special committee" to monitor and review the repatriation process at the Smithsonian. In carrying out its duties, the committee was required to ensure fair and objective consideration of all relevant evidence, upon request, review any findings of cultural affiliation, and facilitate the resolution of any dispute between tribes concerning the repatriation of remains and objects. The law also permitted the Committee to perform other related functions that the Secretary of the Smithsonian might assign.

Repatriation Review Committee meeting with Dan Rogers, Co-Chairman, Department of Anthropology, NMNH Smithsonian Institution, 2002
Committee meeting with Dan Rogers

The Committee was to consist of five members, three of which were to be nominated by Indian tribes and organizations. To that end, over 1,500 letters were sent to Native American tribes and organizations. Sixty-two nominations were submitted. In April 1990, the first five members of the Committee were selected. In fact, four members of the Committee were appointed from nominations submitted by tribes and Native American non-governmental organizations. Two of those four were enrolled members of federally recognized tribes. The fifth member was selected by the Secretary of the Smithsonian. The first term of the five original members of the Review Committee ended in March 1995 and they were renewed for an additional five year term which was again renewed in March 2000.

Photo of the Repatriation Review Committee

Repatriation Review Committee participating in a panel discussion at Southeast Alaska Repatriation Conference in 1999 © Smithsonian Institution, 2000

During the nomination period, a dispute between the people of Larsen Bay, AK and the Smithsonian had been developing over their claim for the repatriation of human remains.  In June of 1990, the Native American Rights Fund asked the Secretary to invoke the Review Committee to hear the dispute.  In a letter of response dated September 1990, the Secretary agreed with this suggestion.  However, this dispute resolution hearing never took place, instead the Smithsonian agreed to return all the Larsen Bay remains.  The deaccessioning process was begun in August 1991 and the remains were repatriated by September 1991.  The first committee meeting was convened that same month.  Four repatriation cases were discussed at the meeting, of which Larsen Bay was one.  There is no record of discussions occurring at that meeting about why the Committee had not been invoked.  Another significant dispute over the disposition of collections was not to occur until 1996.

From 1991 through 1995 the Review Committee met at least two times per year. Working under by-laws developed jointly by the Review Committee and Smithsonian officials, the Committee received updates on the progress of the repatriation effort at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) and copies of NMNH repatriation case reports for their review.  They began the standard practice of monitoring the number of cases opened and closed in a year and making editorial recommendations on case reports.  During every subsequent year, the Committee submitted an annual report on the progress of the repatriation program at the NMNH to the Secretary of the Smithsonian.

Andrea Hunter, Chair, viewing collections with Shoshone-Bannock tribal visitors © Smithsonian Institution, 2002
Tribal visitors viewing collections

In 1995 the Committee ear-marked $100,000 to assist tribes with repatriation ceremonies and the Repatriation Review Committee Travel Grant Program was established.  This grant program enabled tribes to apply for funding for two tribal members to travel to Washington, D. C. to prepare their human remains and funerary objects for reburial.  A year later the program was expanded to include travel for repatriation consultations.  Since that time, over eighty-nine tribes have received funding through that program.  One of the first repatriation visits funded by the Committee was the joint repatriation of human remains from the Steed-Kisker site to the Pawnee, Kaw, Ponca, Iowa, Kansa, and Otoe-Missouri tribes.  Each tribe was invited to send two representatives to the museum to participate in repatriation ceremonies.

In 1996, the NMAI Act was amended in order to address criticism that the NMAI Act did not require the Smithsonian to adhere to deadlines for the submission of inventories to tribes or include repatriation provisions for sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony. The new amendment, in addition addressing those two issues, included a requirement that two traditional Native American religious leaders be added to the Committee. Since that time the Committee has consisted of seven members, two of whom must be traditional religious leaders nominated by tribes.

Tlingit, Haida, and Shimshian dancers

RRC members with Tlingit, Haida, and Shimshian dancers at Southeast Alaska Repatriation Conference, 1999 © Smithsonian Institution, 2002

Over the years, the Committee has promoted museum projects that benefited the Native American community.  They have sponsored repatriation workshops, funded the construction of a ceremonial room that tribes can use while visiting the collections, and funded the re-housing of sensitive Native American objects.

It is unclear what the role of the Committee in the future might be, but it may play a role in providing the Smithsonian with advice on expanding the repatriation program to address the international repatriation of cultural patrimony, and the repatriation of currently unidentified Native American human remains and funerary objects.

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