Editorial: Remove the coverings: Native American history should not go into hiding

If you stop by Chicago’s Field Museum and visit the exhibits featuring the native peoples of the Northwest Coast and Arctic, as well as those of the Ancient Americas, you will notice display cases covered over or blocked off so no one can see inside.

As the Tribune’s Christopher Borrelli recently reported, this isn’t the result of a routine renovation or museum improvement plan. This cover-up at one of Chicago’s most-visited institutions is brought to you by federal regulations that went into effect in mid-January.

The new rules have forced the Field to block access to various objects unless it can obtain consent from the descendants of their original native communities to put them on view. Noncompliance can result in civil penalties and, presumably, reputational damage.

The same cover-up is happening at other museums, including the busy American Museum of Natural History in New York and, to various extents, museums in Denver, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Boston. Across the country, museums, universities and even small-town historical societies are scrambling to comply with the new rules by, in some instances, removing long-standing exhibits.

Whenever the government is involved in suppressing information, or covering museum displays, everyone should worry.

An important part of the nation’s history is being erased, at least temporarily, from the very places where many Americans go to experience it.

The far right is often blamed for its own censorship efforts, such as banning books about controversial topics in schools and public libraries. We’ve decried those moves. This time, the lefty crowd running big-city museums has been caught out. For several decades now, museums have in many cases stonewalled modern Native Americans who’ve demanded that human remains and objects they consider sacred be removed from museum collections and returned to tribes. The tough new rules are meant to end the stonewalling.

The trouble is that today’s tribes may have debatable ownership claims to cultural items that museums have held for generations. Just because some people consider something sacred, it doesn’t mean they own it. And in at least some instances, it is impossible to determine who owned a particular object or has the right to take control of native remains, even as the new rules make it tougher for museums to live with ambiguity.

The upshot is the appalling, better-safe-than-sorry approach of putting up curtains and hiding the exhibits.

If you’re wondering how America got to this point, it’s best to start many generations ago, when archaeologists and other collectors started digging up Native Americans and their stuff in the name of what passed at the time for science. By today’s standards, these efforts were as much desecration and thievery as an attempt to understand the nation’s past. The federal government actively encouraged looting as it pushed Native Americans off the land.

One shocking result: More than 100,000 dead bodies have been held in government, university and museum collections, where they were sometimes put on display or subjected to experiments.

In 1990, then-President George H.W. Bush signed into law the bipartisan Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known as NAGPRA. The law sets out a process for institutions to return human remains and related objects to their rightful owners.

For more than 30 years, things moved slowly. The federal government recognizes nearly 600 Native American tribes. Other organizations represent natives of Alaska and Hawaii and hundreds of tribes exist without federal recognition. Among that diverse group were many opinions about how best to proceed, including different religious restrictions and capabilities.

The law requires institutions to publicly report their holdings and consult with the federally recognized tribes, but some institutions routinely held on to remains and related objects by declaring them “culturally unidentifiable” — meaning no one alive today is clearly entitled to receive them.

Illinois institutions still hold at least 15,500 dead bodies, according to ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that keeps a database. While the Field Museum has made some progress, making about 30% of its holdings available for return, the Illinois State Museum has done the same with just 3% of the more than 7,000 human remains it holds, according to the database, though additional action is underway.

The new rules seek to close the “culturally unidentifiable” loophole and impose a new, five-year deadline to re-inventory and repatriate remains and artifacts. Adding the punitive element shifts power from the institutions to the tribes.

Before the new rules were enacted, the Field Museum said it had “serious concerns” about them. The museum cited “unrealistic deadlines,” an increased bureaucracy and a minimum $1.2 billion in costs for museums to repatriate the 850,000 “culturally unidentifiable” remains and funerary objects listed in national databases.

Some museum professionals also worry the new rules could elevate tribal mythologies and religious traditions over scientific and historical knowledge, making it more difficult to produce accurate displays. Showing Native Americans always in a light in which they would like to see themselves, a likely consequence here, would be a switch from the insulting myths perpetuated in the past, but obtaining consent to display artifacts should not come at the expense of facts, scholarship and truth.

Some tribes agree with this and others worry about their own capacities and resources to deal with all these artifacts. So the curtains being drawn today could stay closed for a long time.

These new government rules are removing part of the nation’s history from view, and we’re concerned the chilling effect in the future could be even worse.

The Feds need to put our parties together, go back to the drawing board and establish a safe harbor for the study and display of this important part of our nation’s heritage.

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