Joe Mabel, via Wikimedia Commons

Last week, the American Museum of Natural History in New York closed two major Native American exhibits to the public in its latest push to comply with the White House requirement to repatriate Native American items. The requirement to return cultural items to Native American tribes was first instituted decades ago but has received a boost from President Joe Biden.

Tribes have long argued that the museums and other institutions have dragged their feet in complying with the repatriation law. Now, many are celebrating the removal of their history from institutions of learning in the name of cultural healing.

But at what price does society and, perhaps more importantly, the tribes affected by this action have to pay?

More harm than good

The famous American Museum of Natural History in New York shut down two Native American exhibits last Friday.

Museum president Sean Decatur said:

“The halls we are closing are artifacts of an era when museums such as ours did not respect the values, perspectives, and indeed shared humanity of Indigenous peoples.”

The action of the New York museum comes on the heels of the Biden administration’s requirement that museums and universities repatriate human remains and cultural items associated with Native American tribes within the next five years. The requirement comes from the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act or NAGPRA from 1990, which required the same.

So why has it taken so long for museums and other institutions to repatriate said items? Many argue that the lack of historically verifiable documentation within the Native American community to prove the ownership of said items has made it difficult for museums and universities to ensure the proper repatriation of remains and items.

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However, thanks to the Biden administration, curators are now required to:

“…defer to the Native American traditional knowledge of lineal descendants, Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations.”

Essentially, in the often-found event that documentary proof is unavailable, curators are to take the word of tribal leaders when returning items. Not only is this unscientific, it opens the doors to all manner of mishaps, including inaccurate repatriation, tribal squabbling over said items, and worse yet…the loss of these historical items forever.

It’s not just about bones

As usual, the government tends to make almost any situation worse. San Jose State Professor of Anthropology Elizabeth Weiss has been warning against this from the start.

Professor Weiss wrote to The Political Insider:

“I’ve predicted that the new NAGPRA regulations would bury our ability to carry out objective scientific inquiries, hide our discoveries about the past, and ruin biological anthropology.”

Professor Weiss goes on to explain the more profound implications of the NAGPRA regulations outside of science:

“However, the new regulations will impact more than just science and natural history museums – new targets include art purchased from contemporary Native American artists. In a recent NAGPRA information session about the new regulations, curators were told to consult with tribes over the display of modern art created by Native American artists that had been recently purchased by the museums.”

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The professor isn’t wrong, as evidenced by the Cleveland Museum of Art covering Native American pieces in the name of NAGPRA. Other items are also being removed from other museums, including Native American musical instruments from the famed Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Lost forever

What happens to the history, forensic scientific study, and cultural appreciation of these tribes when these items are removed from displays and institutions of higher learning? What happens to that culture if there are no items for scientists to study and no cultural pieces for society to admire?

While claiming to honor the cultures of these tribes, society is enabling the erasure of their existence, robbing them of their historical voice and place in the grand timeline of humanity. The progressive woke mind virus isn’t just a danger to education, science, and culture – but to those they claim to fight for.

The best way to preserve the culture of “marginalized” groups isn’t to remove their history from museums and universities – but to display more of it. The world and societies are made richer and stronger by studying those who came before them, not by burying or hiding them from sight.

If we aren’t careful, all that will survive of the tribal communities will be their sacred oral histories that, with the passage of each new generation, are in danger of disappearing like a whisper in the winds of time.

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USAF Retired, Bronze Star recipient, outspoken veteran advocate. Hot mess mom to two monsters and wife to equal parts… More about Kathleen J. Anderson

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