Repatriating the Columbian Exposition

The exhibition of Native Americans at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 was not unique. The exhibitions, designed by some of the leading anthropologists of the day, would not have been far from home in any natural history or ethnographic museum. In fact, many of the components that made up the Native American exhibits ended up the Chicago Field Museum, and eventually other institutions through exchanges.

In designing the Native American villages of the Exposition, anthropologists focused on presenting visitors with an authentic experience. To them, this meant recreating pre-Columbian Native cultures. The result of this approach was the portrayal of Native American people and cultures as exotic, primitive, and disappearing, in keeping with predominant theories of societal evolution at the time. The same sentiments were rampant in museums, perhaps unsurprisingly since many of the anthropologists who worked on the Exposition had successful careers in that field.

Group of Kwakwaka'wakw people (Vancouver Island) at the 1893 Columbian Exposition.
Group of Kwakwaka’wakw people (Vancouver Island) at the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

Given the close relationship between the Exposition and museums, it should not be surprising that many of the pieces used in the Native American villages ended up in their collections. It is unclear, however, whether the Native communities who made props and from whom materials were collected were aware that their property was destined not to be returned.

In 1892, seventeen Haida artists (see below) were commissioned to create a replica of Skidegate village in British Columbia as it looked in 1864. The model consisted of 27 houses (all but three of which had frontal poles), two grave houses, and 17 free-standing poles. After the Exposition, the model was placed in the Field Museum of Natural History, where 10 of the house models and 22 of the poles have remained. Nineteen houses and 21 poles were exchanged or given away to other institutions, and of those 13 houses and 13 poles are unaccounted for.

From top: Skidegate in 1878 (photo by George Dawson), the model at the Columbian Expo in 1893 (photo by Charles Dudley Arnold), and Skidegate in 2006 (photo by Robin K. Wright).
From top: Skidegate in 1878 (photo by George Dawson), the model at the Columbian Expo in 1893 (photo by Charles Dudley Arnold), and Skidegate in 2006 (photo by Robin K. Wright).

In 2001, the Haida people of Skidegate, B.C. and the Haida Gwaii Museum at Qay’llnagaay collaborated with the Burke Museum (Seattle, WA) and the Field Museum to plan an exhibit of the collection at the Qay’llnagaay Heritage Centre and other venues. Despite the setting that they were created for, the model village was capable of being repurposed to tell a self-representational narrative.

The repatriation movement seeks to return not only objects, but also knowledge and representation. When paired with a Native perspective, even objects created for such an imperial purpose as the Columbian Exposition can be used to tell a decolonized narrative.

One of the house models made for the Columbian Expo. This one, made by George Dickson (Haida), is currently in the Arts of the Americas collection at the Brooklyn Museum.
One of the house models made for the Columbian Expo. This one, made by George Dickson (Haida), is currently in the Arts of the Americas collection at the Brooklyn Museum.

Many pieces from the Columbian Exposition remain in the Field Museum and similar institutions to this day. Repatriation of these objects would allow for them to be used by the communities by which they were made to tell a version of history that others often choose to ignore, perpetuating the violence of that era. Such action would be a step toward removing the veil of secrecy placed over the unethical history of the treatment of Native Americans by museums and similar institutions that continues to the present.

The  Haida artists: Adam Brown, Peter Brown, John Cross, George Dickson, William Dickson, Daniel Ellguwuus (‘Iljuwaas), Phillip Jackson, Joshua (Kinna-jesser), Moses McKay, Phillip Pearson, John Robson (Gyaawhllns), Amos Russ, David Shakespeare (Skilduunaas), Peter Smith, Tom Stevens (Tl’aajaang quuna), George L. Young, and Zacherias Nicholas.

Kwakwaka’wakw image source and suggested reading #1:’s_Fair

Suggested Reading #2 (discusses Haida repatriation efforts):

Skidegate Village image source:

Brooklyn Museum model image source:


Wounded Knee: More Than A Massacre

Much of the language traditionally used to describe the Massacre at Wounded Knee centers around the idea of finality. It’s usually a quick note in a history book that demarcates the end of the Indian Wars, which in turn usually means the last mention of Indians in said history book. But Wounded Knee is more than just one instance of violence against the Lakota. Not only does it symbolize the suppression of a revitalization movement, as Fine-Dare notes, but it remains part of an unfinished legacy of genocide of Native peoples.

The trauma surrounding the Wounded Knee Massacre is also unfinished and continual. Fine-Dare cites the high rates of suicide, alcoholism, and poverty as evidence of the ongoing effects that events like the Massacre have had on living Lakota. Perhaps one case study that could serve to highlight the tragedy of Wounded Knee is the story of Lost Bird, an infant who was found alive by some miracle after the 1890 slaughter. A U.S. general adopted her as his own and she was taken away from her people into the world of the whites. Unfortunately the rest of her life was filled with abuse and loss until her untimely death in 1920.

Lost Bird and her adopted "father"
Lost Bird and her adopted “father” Leonard Colby

Lost Bird was initially buried in a cemetery in California, where she died, but her story does not end there. Just over one hundred years after the massacre, in 1991, Native advocates fought to have her remains repatriated and she was buried at the site of the mass grave where her family members were laid to rest at Wounded Knee.

Another repatriation victory was the return of a tunic stolen from the site and later given to the Kelvingrove Museum in Scotland. In August of 1999 the shirt was brought back to Wounded Knee in the first successful international repatriation case of Native objects. The tunic was one of the famous Ghost Dance shirts worn by many members of the Sioux tribe who participated in the revitalization movement at the end of the 19th century. They believed that by participating in the dances and wearing the shirts they would be safe from the bullets of the United States military. Its spiritual and cultural significance is clear, and I was pleased to learn that it was successfully returned to the Lakota, who held a healing ceremony upon the return of the shirt.

Wounded Knee Cemetery
Wounded Knee Cemetery


Unfortunately as noted in this LA Times article, perhaps the seemingly easy return was due in large part to the religious value of the shirt itself. Though hundreds of possessions were taken from the bodies of the victims of Wounded Knee and sold to be displayed at the World’s Fair Exhibition, other objects that might seem less significant could take longer to return to the Lakota tribes. That is, if they were even returned at all. I believe that given the especially tragic circumstances of Wounded Knee, any and all artifacts associated with the Massacre should be returned to the Lakota people as soon as possible. These objects do not belong in any museums in the United States or elsewhere. Though the Massacre is certainly part of American history, items stolen from the victims should not be spoils of war that remain on view for museum visitors to gawk at without context. The 20 Congressional Medals of Honor awarded for bravery that day would serve as better artifacts and would generate much more complicated and fruitful discussion of the policies of extermination adopted by the U.S. government.


Links to images:

Welcome to ANTH/AMST 281

Repatriation is a complex topic because it involves power and precedent. The return of objects and individuals to people and places who claim them is about more than where that particular object or person belongs and who it belongs to.

Repatriation is about justice but justice in a cross-cultural sense. There is no clear set of rules that apply to all cases and in many cases the rules that do apply are widely acknowledged to be flawed.  Some cultures reduce all claims of ownership to written documents. Other cultures determine ownership by length of possession. Still others value only who has it now and require any claimants to prove that it was taken from them unlawfully. How can you prove that your bicycle is yours? There may be a name inscribed on the frame but maybe the person who took it from you put their own name there.

Repatriation is about humanity but not in a “the past belongs to all of us” sense. Every past belongs to some people more than others. The same past can even belong to different groups in an equal way. For example, you have two parents that come from two different families. Each family can claim you as their own but dividing your physical body into two is neither possible nor desirable. To whom would you be repatriated? Where do you belong?

Repatriation challenges us to achieve a deeper level of understanding about the past and the present. By asking why an individual or object has become contested, we ask what that person or thing means to us all. What does it symbolize? Are there wrongs that need to be righted? What would returning it mean? What is at stake now? What was at stake in the past?

I encourage you to think deeply about the bigger questions behind each repatriation case and every repatriation rule and regulation. If there was a clear right answer, why would so much be written on the topic?