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Detail of Plateau Bag (NMNH catalog no. E204234)

Executive Summary

Assessment of a Request for the Repatriation of the Ontonagon Boulder by the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community

Region: Northeast
Associated Cultures: Chippewa, Ojibwa

This report is an evaluation of a 1.5 ton copper boulder (the Ontonagon Boulder) in the collections of the Department of Mineral Sciences at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) to determine if it is eligible for repatriation under the National Museum of the American Indian Act (20 U.S.C. 80q et seq.). The report provides an analysis of available documentation of the item in NMNH records, in conjunction with additional historical and cultural information from archival and published sources, and information provided by the requesting Native American tribe, relevant to the assessment of its cultural affiliation and status as a sacred object under the law. The report also considers the history of the boulder's acquisition as it bears on the right of possession.

The assessment was initiated after a request was received from the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) in 1991 for the return of the Ontonagon boulder as a sacred object. A preliminary analysis of available information indicated that the tribe presented insufficient evidence to establish that the boulder fits the definition of sacred object under the repatriation law. Consultations were held with the tribe in 1998 and 1999, including a visit to the area in which the boulder was originally located, and the tribe was given the opportunity to provide additional information in support of the request.

The boulder was removed from the south fork of the Ontonagon River in 1843 by Julius Eldred and transported to Detroit, MI, where it was confiscated by the War Department. It was taken to Washington, D.C., and remained in the possession of the War Department until 1860, when it was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution. The boulder was acquired from lands that formerly belonged to the members of the Ontonagon band. Descendants of this band are represented by the KBIC in Baraga, MI. Historical information demonstrates that the KBIC is culturally affiliated with the Ontonagon boulder. The KBIC is a federally recognized Indian tribe which is eligible to make a request for the boulder.

The tribe presented evidence from oral tradition that the Ontonagon boulder was a spiritual object associated with a Midewiwin Lodge located near the site at which the boulder was formerly located. According to the tribe, the boulder was used by individuals to make offerings to its manitou (spirit) and to seek improvement in their health and well-being. The tribe states further that the boulder is needed by the Midewiwin Lodge at KBIC for the purification and healing of its practitioners as they enter the Lodge. According to the tribe, the boulder had a role in the Midewiwin Lodge at Ontonagon, but it was not specifically devoted to the ceremony as required by the mandated definition, and they suggest it may not be needed for the continued observance of the ceremony. The preponderance of the evidence does not establish that the Ontonagon boulder is a sacred object according to the legal definition.

Rights to acquire and remove copper from the Ontonagon area were ceded to the United States in 1826 (Treaty of Fond du Lac) and in 1842 (Treaty of La Pointe). Prior to extracting the boulder in 1843, Mr. Eldred paid a sum to the head man of the Ontonagon for the privilege. For these reasons, the Museum has a right of possession to the boulder. Because the Ontonagon boulder does not fit the definition of sacred object under the repatriation law, and the right of possession belongs with the Smithsonian Institution, the Repatriation Office recommended that the Museum retain the boulder and notify the KBIC of this decision.

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Smithsonian Institute - National Mueseum of Natural History