National Museum of the American Indian To Discuss the Return of Indigenous Ancestral Remains

Panel Discussion with Australian Government, Chickasaw Nation and Association on American Indian Affairs
May 20, 2013
News Release
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During the twelfth session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian joins the Australian government, the Chickasaw Nation and the Association on American Indian Affairs for a panel discussion on international repatriation, or the return of human remains to indigenous communities across sovereign borders. The event is hosted by the United States Mission to the U.N. Thursday, May 23, from 1:15 p.m. to 2:45 p.m. at 45th Street and First Avenue, New York City.

Moderated by Honor Keeler (Cherokee), chair of the Working Group on International Repatriation for the AAIA, the panel will feature scholars from the museum’s Repatriation Department, delegates from the Australian government and a representative from the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. The speakers will address the growing international movement to repatriate indigenous ancestors, as well as the historical, legal, logistical and human-rights issues involved.

Panelists include:

  • Kim Beazley, Australian ambassador to the United States
  • Neil Carter,Advisory Committee for Indigenous Repatriation, Department of Regional Australia, Local Government, Arts and Sport
  • Phil Gordon,  Advisory Committee for Indigenous Repatriation, Department of Regional Australia, Local Government, Arts and Sport
  • Kirk Perry (Chickasaw), executive officer, Division of Historic Preservation, Chickasaw Nation
  • Terry Snowball (Prairie Band Potawatomi/WI Ho-Chunk), repatriation coordinator, National Museum of the American Indian
  • Jacquetta Swift (Comanche/Ft. Sill Apache), repatriation manager, National Museum of the American Indian
  • Nancy Kenet Vickery, international repatriation specialist, National Museum of the American Indian

By the middle of the 20th century, it is estimated that there were more indigenous human remains housed in museums and other repositories than there were living indigenous people in the U.S. In 2010, President Barack Obama officially announced U.S. support for the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which affirms the rights of indigenous communities, including the right to repatriate their human remains from foreign governments, museums and private collections. The declaration, while not legally binding, provides a framework for improving the policies that currently govern treatment of indigenous people across the world.

The panel will address the growing movement to strengthen and broaden the laws that govern these repatriations, as well as the opportunities and challenges these legal frameworks represent. Panelists will also discuss the diplomatic importance of community relationship-building in the international repatriation process, including the museum’s outreach to an Atacameño and Aymara community in northern Chile in 2007 to return ancestral human remains that involved extensive collaboration with representatives from the Council of National Monuments of Chile and the National Indigenous Development Corporation.

Since the Smithsonian first acquired the George Gustav Heye collection in 1989, the museum has repatriated more than 31,000 items directly back to their indigenous communities of origin, including human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony. Through collaborative dialogue, the museum incorporates traditional knowledge and specific religious protocols to care for and return these sacred items.

To join the conversation via Twitter, follow the hashtag #ReturnAncestorsHome.

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