Updated federal regulations affecting how Native American artifacts are displayed in museums

Updated rules for Native American exhibits

Updated rules for Native American exhibits

Rita Walaszek Arndt was in her element showing a visitor some of the Native American artifacts at the Minnesota History Center.   

“This is actually my favorite thing, now that I think about it,” she says. “It’s an invitation to our annual celebration on a piece of bark back from 1899.”

Arndt, a White Earth Ojibwe, is proud of her heritage and her role as Program Manager for Native American Initiatives at the Minnesota Historical Society.  

“This is the kind of work I’m passionate about,” she explains. “To be that kind of liaison or to help bridge that gap between the community and the museum to talk about these things. It takes a lot of relationship building, takes a lot of time.”  

Arndt is referring to the 4,000 cultural items on display at the center- everything from historical photos, to clothing, crafts, and even a baby’s cradleboard.

“Native Americans have been here in Minnesota for 10,000 years, and their story is part of our story,” declares Brenda Raney, the society’s Senior Vice President of Library Research and the Collection Division. “We need to be working with, talking with, and listening to, the tribes of origin of these items.”

Our visit came as museums across the country are responding to newly enacted federal regulations, in the updated 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA.

The rules require museums to obtain consent from tribes before displaying cultural objects or using them for research.

“The mission of our department has always been to lead with a native perspective and a native lens,” explains Amber Annis, a member of the Lakota Tribe, and the Director of Native American Initiatives at the Historical Society. “We’re really just stewards of these items in our collections. We defer to Native knowledge, to Native research and history around some of these. But also, we’re in the same business of making sure we want to preserve some of these items, you know.”  

Museums in Chicago, Cleveland, and New York City have closed or papered over exhibits that might not be in compliance with the rules.

“The east coast museums, they have items from tribes that are not geographically located there anymore,” Arndt notes. “So, there’s a big disconnect.”

At the Cleveland Museum of Art, Native American exhibits are covered up by boards with signs explaining why.  

“What’s happening right now is that new protocols are being put into place,” says Marie Toledo, with the Lake Erie Native American Council. “It is enough right now. I think they’ve been proactive. There are many museums that have not even done that much.”

But staffers at the History Center in St. Paul say they’re confident they won’t have to close exhibits, because tribal members help select items to be shown.

It’s a relationship that dates back to the late 1980s.  

The Center’s ‘Indian Advisory Committee’ includes representatives from each of the state’s 11 federally recognized tribes.

“Because of the relationships we’ve built up with tribes, we are confident that everything we have on display already meets the NAGPRA regulations,” Raney says. “We don’t need to cover anything or take anything down, because it already fits the rules.”

Other institutions in Minnesota are taking note of the updated regulations.

A spokesperson for the Minneapolis Institute of Art issued a statement which said in part, “We are evaluating the updates to NAGPRA to determine how they affect the museum’s holdings of Native American objects, and any steps we may need to take to ensure we remain in compliance.”

The Science Museum of Minnesota says in a statement that ‘SMM staff have and continue to work enthusiastically with Indigenous advisors on exhibit content to ensure any items deemed sensitive or sacred by our partners are not put on display…. staff will also continually review what we hold in collections to identify items that should be returned.”

A spokesperson for the University of Minnesota says the school’s Weisman Art Museum is not holding any Native American artifacts that would be affected by NAGPRA.

Raney says she’s appreciative of the tribal-museum relationship.

“The tribes are actually partners in the curation. They helped us pick which items to use in the exhibit,” she says. “Making sure that all voices are heard in the stories that we’re telling. Rather than a narrow slice or a narrow perspective of history, we really do want to tell a multiple perspective story.”