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Detail of Plateau Bag (NMNH catalog no. E204234)

Executive Summary

Assessment of a Request for the Repatriation of a Kiowa War Shield (Big Bow's Shield) from the National Museum of Natural History

Region: Plains
Associated Cultures: Kiowa

In February, 1998, Mr. Nelson Big Bow, a member of the Kiowa Tribe in Oklahoma, telephoned the National Museum of Natural History and asked for the return of a Kiowa war shield, catalog no. 385891, that had belonged to his great grandfather, a renowned Kiowa war chief named Big Bow. His request was referred to the Repatriation Office, and throughout the rest of 1998 there was a great deal of communication between the two parties about the Museum's repatriation procedures and information that is needed to support the request of the shield as a sacred object. Mr. Big Bow submitted a letter of request in August, which was followed by two letters from family members who attested to the religious nature of the ceremony for which the shield was needed and to the religious leadership of Mr. Big Bow in such matters, as well as a supplemental statement by Mr. Big Bow about the religious aspects of the Big Bow shield.

Mr. Big Bow submitted genealogical information that establishes he is a lineal descendant of the individual from whom the shield was originally acquired. Under the terms of the NMAI Act, as amended, it was determined that he is eligible to make a request for a sacred object. Mr. Big Bow was informed of the information and evidence needed to accompany the request which will be used for making a determination that the object is a sacred object under the law and that the right of possession lay with the claimant. Mr. Big Bow and his associates submitted written information on several occasions in support of the request, and Mr. Big Bow also transmitted information orally over the telephone to Dr. Smythe in the Repatriation Office.

Upon reviewing all the information submitted by Mr. Big Bow, as well as the available accession papers and ethnographic information about Kiowa religious beliefs and practices, and about the origin and use of Kiowa war shields, it is found that the shield does not qualify for repatriation according to the mandated definition of sacred object. The Big Bow shield was carried in warfare and raiding to provide protection to the bearer. It was not a specific ceremonial object that was "devoted" to a traditional Native American religious ceremony, that is, set apart and dedicated for specific use in a traditional Native American religious ceremony or ritual, as required (see NAGPRA regulations, p. 62160). A Kiowa "medicine" shield, of which this is one, was endowed with a power that served to protect its bearer in warfare. It was the power of a shield that made it one of the most prized possessions of a Kiowa warrior and is one of the reasons it is sought by the Big Bow family. Associated with the use of the shield were certain personal rituals carried out by the owner to prepare for warfare, among which were actions taken to invoke the "medicine" of the shield before engaging in warfare. A family member, writing in support of the request, has stated "Of course, we are not in a battle with an enemy anymore, so that part of the ceremony doesn't exist." "Medicine" shields were not associated with any other ceremonial activity.

It is also found that the right of possession to the shield rightfully belongs to the Museum. The accession file contained a detailed history of the shield which was provided in 1894 in sign language by Iseeo, a Kiowa tribal member who was the brother of a former user of the shield and a friend of the Big Bow family. This narrative was simultaneously translated by Lt. Hugh Scott and recorded in longhand by Dr. Glennan. Lt. Scott later (1911) wrote a letter in which he reiterated the story about the sale of the shield. Iseeo assisted Big Bow in disposing of the shield by offering it for sale to Army officers, upon the request of Big Bow's son. Big Bow, who suffered from temporary paralysis that left him unable to speak, believed he was in danger from the "medicine" in the shield. In Kiowa tradition, shields were personal property and their owners possessed the right to transfer ownership to others. Non-relatives frequently acquired "medicine" shields by purchasing them from the owner. In this case, the shield was purchased from Big Bow by Dr. Glennan, U.S. Army Surgeon, whose descendants later donated it to the Museum. On the basis of this information, it is determined that the right of possession to the shield belongs to the Museum.

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