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Detail of Plateau Bag (NMNH catalog no. E204234)

Executive Summary

Assessment of a Repatriation Request for a Cayuse Dress in the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

Region: Plateau
Associated Cultures: Cayuse, Umatilla

In compliance with the National Museum of American Indian Act (20 U.S.C. Section 80q) (NMAI Act), this report provides an assessment of a request for the repatriation of a dress in the collections of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). The requested object is a Cayuse dress of 19 th century manufacture (Smithsonian Institution catalog number E425600). This report provides an analysis of available documentation 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 an object of cultural patrimony under the law. The report also considers the history of the acquisition of the dress as it bears on the right of possession.

This assessment was initiated after the NMNH received a request in 2001 from a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR), with a letter of support from the Chairman of the CTUIR Cultural Resources Committee, for the return of the dress as an object of cultural patrimony. This dress was requested by a lineal descendant of the original owner, Welahilakin. This item was sold to NMNH in 1987 by another descendant of the original owner.

The claimant presented written evidence that dresses classified as best dresses are considered to be objects of cultural patrimony by the CTUIR. According to her letters, the dress represents her clan, and is an important heirloom to her family. Her letter also stated that dresses such as this one were passed down through generations for the purpose of continuing family traditions, and when the dress was sold it to the Smithsonian Institution, she believes that the seller alienated it from the family inappropriately.

The seller also presented written and verbal information relating to this claim. She emphasized that the dress was her personal property and that she did not have to consult the family or the tribe regarding its disposition. Furthermore, one side of the family did not know about the dress until recently, making it unlikely the dress could have been communally owned by them. Finally, it was her strong wish that the dress stay at the Smithsonian.

Upon reviewing all the information submitted by all parties, as well as the available accession papers and ethnographic information, it has been found that the dress does not qualify for repatriation according to the legally mandated definition of an object of cultural patrimony. Although the importance of this dress as a family heirloom is clear, the documentation submitted for the claim does not demonstrate that the dress was the communal property of the tribe as a whole. The seller and the claimant also appear to have conflicting opinions on the part of the family through which the dress should be passed down. A key component of the definition of an object of cultural patrimony is that the object has ongoing historical, traditional or cultural importance central to the Native American tribe or culture itself. This dress was and is evidently very important to the two families as an heirloom, but the two sides of the family do not agree on the proper line of inheritance for the dress. Furthermore, it has not been clearly demonstrated that the dress is of central and ongoing importance to the tribe or culture as a whole, or that the dress was inalienable by the seller, who had inherited the dress from her mother.

This report also addresses the issue of right of possession. According to accession records, the seller signed "all rights, title and interest" of the dress to the Smithsonian Institution. On the other hand, in a letter to the Repatriation Office the claimant states that, although the seller had physical possession of the dress, and was the family's "holder" of the dress at the time she sold it to the Smithsonian Institution, she did not have the right of possession. The accession documentation clearly indicates, however, that the seller believed she had the right to sell this item, and the ethnographic literature does not indicate that property of this nature was normally held communally among Plateau groups in any formalized system. Further consultation with the seller also confirmed her opinion on this matter. For an object to be cultural patrimony, it must have been inalienable by the tribe at the time it was obtained by the museum. This object was the property of an individual and therefore does not fit the definition of cultural patrimony.

Since the Cayuse dress does not fit the definition of an object of cultural patrimony under the NMAI Act, and there is no evidence that it was illegally or unethically acquired, the Repatriation Office recommended that the Museum retain the dress and notify all parties of this decision.

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