Associate Professor and Chair of Anthropology Siobhan M. Hart and Maisie Bernstein ’21 completed object-based research on Native arts from the Tang collection in order to verify or correct cataloging data and identify works that are subject to NAGPRA regulations.
Associate Professor and Chair of Anthropology
In 1990, a decade before the Tang Teaching Museum opened its doors, the US Congress passed a law that fundamentally transformed the relationships among Native Americans, museums, and archaeologists. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) establishes a process for museums to repatriate Native American human remains and certain kinds of objects to the most closely culturally affiliated Native American tribe(s) or Hawaiian organizations. NAGPRA was heralded as human rights legislation for its advancement of intercultural reparations and cultural property law.
Museums and Native American communities have been grappling with implementation since 1990. Native American elders, spiritual leaders, and representatives have been traveling to museums to share and gather knowledge about collections, sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles away. They are reviewing and responding to information provided by museums and sometimes contesting a museum’s determination of cultural affiliation. And they are doing the difficult work of preparing for the return of ancestors, sacred objects, and cultural patrimony, all while confronting the insidious consequences of colonialism that necessitated the law in the first place.
Museum professionals in all kinds of settings—art museums, culture and history museums, historical societies, libraries, universities—have been verifying and updating catalogs and inventories, researching objects sometimes acquired a century or more ago, and consulting with Native American tribes. My first job post-college was as a curatorial assistant at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology working on a NAGPRA inventory, and I continued repatriation work for eight years in graduate school. As an archaeologist trained in the post-NAGPRA era, I have experienced the difficult, slow, and labor-intensive work of repatriation. It is transformative for individuals and communities and absolutely necessary for institutions with commitments to inclusion and decolonizing.
In summer 2019, Maisie Bernstein ’21 and I worked with over a hundred artworks from the Tang collection made by Native American artists. We focused on improving the catalog through object-based research, identifying whether any objects are subject to NAGPRA, and beginning the process of identifying source communities. We essentially constructed a biography of each object drawn from archives, scholarship, the object’s attributes, and similar objects in other museums—teasing out who made it, how and when it was made, who it belonged to and who possessed it over time, how it ended up in the Tang collection, and who the museum might engage for repatriation or collaboration in the future.
We learned that some artworks, including pottery made by Puebloan artists from the American Southwest, war clubs made by Native artists in the Great Plains, and textiles woven by Diné (Navajo) artists were already in the possession of the Skidmore College Art Collection (which formed the foundation of the Tang collection) when NAGPRA was enacted, having been gifted by Skidmore’s biology department and Professor Emeritus Dr. Sonja Karsen. Later, in 2007, the Schenectady Museum & Suits-Bueche Planetarium gifted thirty-one Native American objects. The Schenectady Museum acquired the mostly basketry, beadwork, and leatherwork between 1930 and 1970 from local and regional collectors and through exchanges with other museums. The growing scrutiny to develop provenance and increased sensitivity around the ethics of collecting antiquities (brought about in part by NAGPRA) led some late twentieth-century collectors to focus on contemporary works produced for the art market. This included collectors like Moreen O’Brien Maser ’26, Susan Rabinowitz Malloy ’45, and Dr. Grace Swanner, who would each make gifts to Skidmore and the Tang.
Some objects are extensively documented, with appraisals, detailed provenance, and fastidious collector notes. Swanner, a Saratoga Springs physician who collected crosses from around the world, kept an index with notes on how, where, and when she acquired pieces, along with sketches and descriptions. In one instance, she describes purchasing an “Eskimo ivory cross” made by a King Island Inupiaq artist at Kotzebue, Alaska, in 1965. These details flesh out the story of how, when, where, and by whom this object was created and how it came to be possessed by Swanner and later, the Tang. The artist’s name is not recorded and we are left to wonder why, especially when the collector recorded the names of other artists and witnessed its manufacture firsthand.