TO NATIVE AMERICAN INDIAN TRIBES OF THE AMERICAS
Let me start by saying no one wishes more than I that you would have won the Indian wars. I offered to present on what really happened at the Little Bighorn to two different agencies in South Dakota, and did not get a response in either case.
When I started this research of the pre-contact copper industry in Wisconsin it was because, as curator at the Oconto Copper Burial Museum, I was incensed to hear some Michiganders and others say that the natives weren’t smart enough to tool in copper — that they must have had help from “The Old World.” I set out to prove them wrong.
I realize that the burial museum in Oconto being put on display is not a positive thing for the Menominee. When the state thought of shutting it down, I asked their historian to please have the tribe consider buying it, for only pennies on the dollar at the time. I finally left, in part because I was being torn in two but I took my love of establishing a copper trade network with me.
Now you might say it’s just because I had nothing better to do. In part, you might be right. I was living in Abrams and had a hard time keeping a job. I think it’s because I lived too far from the location of the good jobs (Green Bay), and finally, when I went job-seeking in Madison, found one that I kept until retirement.
What happened just after I left Oconto was I got my hands on the Henry Hamilton artifact database — these items are still on display in the basement of the state historical society. If they are not offending anyone by being on display, how is my research offensive? I don’t display NAGPRA photos either; they had taken their burial items down. I felt that the display didn’t tell us enough because the artifacts were not arranged by location but by type. In order to truly learn about the trade network, we need to know what was found where, and then see if we can figure out why.
It has been an amazing project, begun in 2010 and took me around the country to a lot of museums who thought it was a great idea. But I fear a trend has begun to develop, and maybe that’s a good thing. Early this year I was denied access to artifact photos in the Missouri History Center because of their tribal consultants. Was it me? Or is that a blanket no to research outside of an academic institution? Do I have to go for a PhD to get this work done? I’m now less than a week from 70 years old and that is simply out of the question.
And now I get another no — this time from Chicago’s Field Museum. They let me in late in 2022. This is what I mean by a trend developing. I have three museums scheduled to let me examine materials in June. Are they going to say no when I get there? The Peabody Museum at Harvard is also letting me in — I’ll go in August.
But curation at Field asked that I contact descendants of those who once owned these artifacts. I find several problems with this. One, in NAGPRA it states that a tribe can claim items in accession at museums if they demonstrate certain criteria. I have no idea of that criteria has been met in this case, where the Saginaw Tribe has now denied me (me specifically) access to NAGPRA items. Another issue that they are addressing in this case is that they’ll inform the other tribes of Michigan of this decision so that they’re all in accord. Tribes often differ in their opinions on matters like these.
I do want someone to tell me what harm I’m doing. At one point I offered all the data in the CAMD to a number of Native Indian institutions and not one of them responded. And I understand. Who am I and why trust me? I’m just a crazy historian with a dream, that somehow we can turn back to the clock to find greater respect for the Earth as the People once had.
I understand NAGPRA, I do. I worked at that burial museum from 2008 – 2010. I do not put burial artifacts on display. I share data that can be used to understand why the Europeans weren’t immediately slaughtered when they got here. Whether or not the artifact had been buried is immaterial for this research. Instead, what was made and where was it found. That’s it. I do not photograph burial items if told not to, and certainly do not display than in my copper artifact resource manuals. In fact, I was just given a review that knocked me down for not having enough photos in them. It’s the data that I focus on — what’s found where. I feel this kind of compilation can tell us a great deal about civilizations with no written records.
Archaeology is necessarily going through changes. I hope they never have to dig anything up again. I wish they could put a lot of stuff back. But then private collectors are the ones who get the material, and we don’t want that, either. Because then no one knows or learns or comprehends anything. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked with collectors. There are good people out there who want to know every bit as much as I do. Hamilton was a private collector who gave his entire collection to the state historical society.
I know the realities in the American Indian world today. Half of the tribal members hate the whites, and the other half recognizes that there are good, and there are bad, same as in the 1800s. I like to think I’m a good. We should try to work together in this research. I would welcome a legitimate oversight of my work by any tribal member. But who would it be? My work covers all of the Americas. I’ve made myself known all over the Americas, and this includes contact with Native Indian museums.
Archaeologists now need to take a look at all the artifacts that have already been pulled out of the ground and analyze them, rather than continue to search for more field work. Field work is fine but how do you keep the site private, relate what was found but leave it there, and then protect it afterward? They can use a database like mine, where I do a lot of the legwork for them.
All I’m doing is analyzing what’s already been found. I can’t do that if I can’t type the artifacts. The Updated Wittry Typology is available free to download at mbebowreinhard.academia.edu – please check it out, and you’ll see firsthand the extent of my work. Check out the three books I’ve already published. See if you can tell me what harm I’m doing.
Because if I find that answer insightful, I will delete 13 years of work.
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