Question of ownership

Ghost dance rendering by James Penny (1836-1910)

Who keeps the spoils?

My work began in the late 1980s with examinations of how people think about risk, health and the environment and how such scientific topics unfold in mass media. And when science issues impact American Indians, I figure that’s a bonus—at least for my research. I cannot examine Indians as objects of interest, but I can study how discourse reveals settler-denizen relationships.

That means I retain a sort of journalistic approach, always on the ready to read up on how the latest conflict impacts citizens and tribal members (my first jobs were as a writer, photographer and editor, and I’m probably a better writer than researcher). That meant learning about mining when I examined how the town of Ladysmith, Wisconsin, became home to a copper mine that was slated for construction on Indian (Ojibwa) territory. While studying salmon and treaty rights in the Pacific Northwest I’ve had to learn about rights, laws, policies, salmon, sturgeon and sea lions. Working with Doug Herman, a senior geographer with the National Museum of the American Indian, I’ve brushed up on museum studies and geography, and my examination of discourse on Kennewick Man thrust me into cultural theory and anthropology.

Knowing of my interests, my colleague Courtney Ann Hanson recently sent me an article titled, “The war over plunder” from History Net. The author puts the spoils of wars—jewelry, paintings, coins, statues, mummies and bones—in a global context, thus broadening the scope of Kennewick Man’s skeletal remains and demanding an answer to the question, “who owns the bones?” The author notes that in the context of wars, the victor reaps the spoils. Period.

For example, Sweden invaded what is now the Czech Republic in 1648 and stole books, paintings, artwork and gems, some of which had been earlier plundered elsewhere by the Roman Emperor Rudolph II. The Swedes returned home with a boatload of pilfered goods including the rare Silver Bible which the Czechs want returned.

The news story notes that Sweden has possessed the bible “six times longer than anyone in Prague ever did, so it is not surprising that they don’t feel compelled to hand it over.” The story adds that no laws require Sweden to return the stolen items, and says that to do so “is ultimately a matter of public relations.”

Public relations—or perhaps human relations—helped American Indians retrieve a pilfered artifact from a museum in Glasgow, Scotland.

The tale begins with heart-breaking circumstances in 1890 in the American West, when the US 7th Cavalry murdered Lakota children, women and men at Wounded Knee. A ghost shirt worn by a stricken warrior was acquired by George Crager who toured with Wild Bill Cody as a Lakota translator. During the troupe’s visit to Scotland in 1892, Crager gave the shirt to the city of Glasgow and it took up residence at the local museum.

Lakota tribal members learned of the shirt in the 1990s and, a century after its theft, the Lakota sent a delegation to Glasgow to ask for its return. At first the city refused, buttressed by a British law that pronounced, “all museum artifacts in the United Kingdom to be British property.” The Lakota embarked on a campaign to win popular support fueled (according to History Net) by the popularity of the 1990 film, Dances with Wolves. In 1998 the city returned the ghost shirt to the Lakota.

The story illustrates how laws don’t necessarily favor those repressed or colonized, and that human relations are often more compelling.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in Indian, Lakota, Native Science, repatriation, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Question of ownership

  1. Laws are human constructs to suit the agendas of those who create them.
    Now in regard to such items as Ghost Dance shirts–I do not understand the ‘need’ of some people to retain the personal property–and or physical remains–of the dead. To me it’s akin to someone going to murder scene and taking the dead person’s clothing because they fancy it for themselves. Or how about taking the personal effects off a person about to buried in a mass grave for one’s own benefit. Isn’t that dishonoring the dead? Would the museum staff be willing to trade the personal effects of their relatives for a Ghost Dance shirt?
    To the victor go the spoils—are we all Viking raiders at heart?
    You’re in Portland. The Museum of Art has a rather solid collection of Lakota clothing items circa 1890, South Dakota. Guess what I’m thinking.


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