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Detail of Plateau Bag (NMNH catalog no. E204234)

Executive Summary

Assessment of Blackfoot Objects Requested for Repatriation in the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

Region: Plains
Associated Cultures: Blackfoot, Blackfeet, Blood

This report is an evaluation of three cultural objects in the ethnological collections of the Department of Anthropology of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) to determine if they are eligible for repatriation under the National Museum of the American Indian Act (20 U.S.C. 80q et seq.), (the "NMAI Act"). The report provides an analysis of available documentation of the items in NMNH records, in conjunction with historical and cultural information from archival and published sources, and information provided by the requesting Native American tribes relevant to the assessment of the cultural affiliation of the objects and their status as sacred objects or objects of cultural patrimony under the law. For objects confirmed by the assessment process as objects of cultural patrimony or sacred objects, the report also considers the history of acquisition of each item as it bears on the right of possession to the object.

Three Motoki Society headdress bundles containing 31 objects were requested as sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony by the Blackfeet Nation of Montana on behalf of the Blackfoot Confederacy and with the support of the Blood Tribe of Alberta, Canada. Both the Blackfeet Nation (South Pikanni) and the Blood Tribe (Kainai) are part of the Blackfoot Confederacy, along with the North Blackfoot (Siksika) and the Piegan (North Pikanni). The four tribes of the Confederacy share a common group identity.

These headdress bundles were all acquired by Madge Hardin Walters between 1937 and 1939 through Percy Creighton, a Blood tribal chief who served as intermediary for sales to Walters. Creighton acquired them directly from the heirs of deceased members of the Motoki Society. The Motoki Society is an important women's ceremonial society among the Blood Tribe and the Siksika, with three subdivisions: the Snakes, the Birds, and the Bulls. A Snake headdress bundle was acquired by Percy Creighton in 1938, from either Small Face Woman or Separate Spear Woman, each of whom had likely inherited the headdress from her mother. Creighton sold this headdress bundle to Walters in 1938. Creighton also obtained two different types of Bird headdresses, one possibly from a woman named Pipe Wolf Woman, or Mrs. Chief Shot-on-Both-Sides, in 1939 and the other from Long Distance Killer in 1937. Again, both of these women likely inherited these headdresses from their mothers. Walters loaned the three headdresses to the Denver Art Museum (DAM) in 1938, 1940, and 1946. They were all officially sold to the DAM in 1946. The DAM, in turn, transferred them to the NMNH in 1953 in exchange for other objects.

Collection histories of these objects are available in original correspondence between the collector, Madge Hardin Walters, and her intermediaries on the Blood Reserve in Canada. The preponderance of evidence indicates that these three headdress bundles are culturally affiliated with the Blackfeet Nation of Montana. The evidence indicates that all three headdress bundles meet the definition of "sacred objects" under the NMAI Act, but the evidence reviewed does not warrant the conclusion that these bundles also qualify as "objects of cultural patrimony," as the term is defined. Although it can be shown that the bundles were of great importance to the tribe at the time they were alienated, the historical evidence is insufficient to determine that they were of such central importance to the group as a whole that they were considered inalienable by any individual at the time they were separated from the tribe, as required by the legal definition of an object of cultural patrimony. While the heirs who sold these bundles to Walters acted as if they had the authority to do so, there is also contrary evidence suggesting that the Motoki Society still exerted some form of use rights to the bundles even after a bundle keeper passed away. There is no evidence that these three bundles were sold by Motoki Society members who may have had the authority to do so and, therefore, the NMNH cannot overcome the tribe's initial assertion that the museum does not have right of possession to these bundles. The NMAI Act mandates that direct lineal descendants of previous owners of sacred objects may claim sacred objects for return. However, that mandate contemplates that the heirs inherited the same ownership interest as the previous owners. In the case of these bundles, the Blood Tribe has stated that, traditionally, while Motoki Society bundle keepers may have had control over the disposition of the bundles, in contrast, their family members served only as custodians of the bundle for the Motoki Society as a whole and not as owners in an individual capacity. For that reason, and based on the conclusion that these are sacred objects needed by the Motoki Society as a whole for the practice of traditional religion, they are not being offered to lineal descendants of the original bundle keepers. Accordingly, it is recommended that these three headdress bundles be offered for return to the Blackfeet Nation of Montana.

Repatriation Update
These three headdress bundles were repatriated to the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana, with the support of the Blood Tribe of Canada, on July 17, 2007

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