Yurok Repatriation


Yurok Photo: Yurok Tribe – Rebecca James (right) discusses Yurok baskets with research specialist
Cara Fama at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.


I just read a post on facebook from the National Museum of the American Indian that linked to this article regarding the repatriation of over 200 items to the Yurok Tribe. They are located downriver from the Karuk on the Klamath River. When I was in D.C. last fall, I saw the shelves with their cultural objects and heard that many of them were going to be returned. Although the Cultural Resource Center at the NMAI is an amazing facility, I was happy to imagine these items being freed from the institutional surroundings and having life breathed back into them. I do love museums, but when it comes to historic items, I always get a sense of sadness. This is true of both Western and Indigenous artifacts. It is kind of like viewing a gravesite. I get the sense that the focus becomes less about the people who created and owned the object than the item itself. But without context, the item is dead! (And there aren’t enough explanatory tags and recordings to do justice to most objects. Better to leave them a mystery than to skim a subject in the effort to create mass appeal.) Even worse, is the BODIES exhibit. It has been in Seattle a couple of times now, but I couldn’t bring myself to go. Luckily, I think the Seattle City Council passed something recently that would keep the exhibit from coming back. I’m not opposed to serious research at all. But some things just aren’t appropriate for entertainment purposes.


With my own art, I’ve given a lot of thought to what may happen to the items I create. As an artist, I certainly understand that once something is out of my hands, it is embarking on it’s own path. Where will these things end up? Perhaps centuries from now, they may end up on “life support” in a museum somewhere at the hands of well-meaning, overzealous curators? Maybe museums and other cultural institutions are now the new “families” that are supposed to keep these things safe. It is hard to say. I do know that while a part of me worries about using archival quality materials, another part of me really likes the thought of using materials that will decay over time. Nothing lasts forever.  


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