For decades, a stereotypical and frequently inaccurate mindset dominated the way anthropologists and museum curators treated Native Americans in research and exhibits.
Scholars at several sessions of this year’s American Anthropological Association conference, held in Washington, say the ideology is evolving for a variety of reasons -- social consciousness and activism by and for Native people looming large among them. Still, even if the days of contrasting “civilized” white people with “savage” Indians are long gone, complicated debates exist over the appropriate manifestation of anthropological authority, especially at institutions of higher education.
“I think I still have the authority of interpretation,” Elizabeth M. Brumfiel, president of the association and an archaeologist at Northwestern University, said Saturday. “I also think, though, that many more Native people in the United States … are asking not only for the physical retention of objects, but also for a certain amount of authority over the messages in displays and how things are displayed and how they are defined.”
Brumfield, noting that she’s worked closely with Native peoples for 18 years in a small Mexican town to keep artifacts stored within the area, said, “it’s a good thing to have dialogue for both indigenous people and anthropologists.”
She also said that anthropologists are motivated in these discussions by not wanting to be racist. “There’s a lot of self-examination in anthropology,” she said. “They don’t want to fall into the errors of the past… No anthropologist wants to be racist.”
Since the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 -- which provided a process for museums to return certain Native American cultural items – many universities have worked with tribes and individual Native peoples to meet the requirements of the law. To date, hundreds of bones and artifacts have been returned, according to the National Park Service. Still, some Native Americans have argued that the administration of the law has been hampered  because when non-Native researchers wish to keep certain artifacts, government officials tend to agree.
“It’s a delicate situation,” assessed Bruce Bernstein, the National Museum of the American Indian’s assistant director for cultural resources. He said that policies tend to favor museums, especially those at universities.
Brumfiel said that there are many variables that influence how a university works with tribes, one of which is geographic proximity. “Plus, some have been more reluctant than others to enter into dialogues,” she said.
“We have to remember, too, that repatriation isn’t just about artifacts or bones,” said Bernstein, who led a Friday discussion called Advances in Museum Anthropology. “It’s really about knowledge. Museums are so intent on collecting things that they sometimes forget about the knowledge side.
“If, as anthropologists, we’re really looking to work with people -- to understand them better -- then repatriation is really the best thing that ever happened for museums,” he continued. “It puts them in one-to-one contact with the very people that they want to be in contact with and generate information about.”
Several conference attendees noted an expanding willingness in the field to pay attention to the voices of Native peoples in the development of new museum exhibitions and in the evolution of older ones.
Bernstein said that many in the field are “trying to untie the knots for Indian people.” In fact, anthropologists and curators associated with the University of Arizona and the University of North Carolina have taken the lead on both repatriation issues and on involving indigenous voices within anthropology. At Arizona’s Arizona State Museum, a curator for Native American relations, Alyce Sadongei, works closely with local tribes to protect and conserve Southwest Indian pottery and other artifacts.
“I think that people are largely enlightened now,” said Bernstein of this year’s conference attendees. He recalled that while presenting similar ideas on American Indian voices within museums at an American Anthropological Association conference in the early 1990s, “the crowd was not pleased.”
“It’s a different organization today,” he added.
Abby Clouse, an anthropology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arizona, said Friday that her education has taken place entirely within the context of working closely with tribes on repatriation matters. She said that as older anthropologists retire, she expects that dialogues between anthropologists and American Indians will only grow stronger.
Could this evolution of anthropological authority have gone too far, too fast? Richard West, director of the National Museum of the American Indian, touched on this issue Friday, noting that some scholars have complained that exhibits at his institution lack a firmly researched background and some presentations appear “culturally insignificant” to many visitors.
West said, however, that “museums cannot hide behind a history of elitism,” and the museum’s purpose is to challenge the authority of non-Natives over indigenous peoples. While noting that the mission of his institution is focused on working in collaboration with indigenous peoples in the development of all exhibits, West said that he doesn’t expect every museum to take a similar approach. Still, much anthropological attention -- largely positive -- was focused on the practices of the museum during the course of the conference.
"There’s been a lot of dialogue by Native Americans, asking ‘Why do we need anthropologists to speak for us? We can speak for ourselves,'” said Brumfiel. “I think that’s a legitimate question, but I think there’s an answer to it.
“Nobody -- including anthropologists -- see themselves objectively,” she said. “People benefit from dialoguing with an outsiders point of view. If anthropologists are outsiders, that’s also good for Native people to be in dialogue with them. It’s also good for anthropologists.”