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Harvard Peabody Museum Returns Sacred Scrolls to White Earth Tribe

As tribal historic preservation officer for White Earth Nation, Jaime Arsenault has been doing repatriation work for nearly two decades. On Wednesday she presided over a ceremony at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology that returned two sacred scrolls and a pipe tomahawk to White Earth, which is an Anishinaabe nation (and its ancestors part of Anishinaabe spiritual and communal life). Arsenault described the process as long, but transformative.

“At the end I feel everyone involved is a little bit better off. You watch people change for the better, myself included,” she said.

The private morning ceremony was held in the Bowditch room of the Peabody. A gift of wild rice was also presented for the museum staff. The birchbark scrolls, used in performing sacred rites, came to the Peabody through two museum exchanges in the early and mid-20th century, respectively, and were returned under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The museum is unclear on how it came to purchase the wooden-handled pipe tomahawk with ribbon fringe, which fell outside of NAGPRA but was approved for deaccession by the University in January 2021.

“It’s nice to bring these relatives home again,” Arsenault said, after the signing of transfer documents. “While we are near the end of this particular repatriation, in many ways this is just the beginning of our collaborative relationship. There is a lot we can accomplish together, and I’m happy to the support the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in their efforts as the institution moves forward regarding future repatriations, collaborations, and restitution with a multitude of communities.”

Each repatriation is unique, and this one took several years, delayed in part by the pandemic.

Professor Philip Deloria, who chairs Harvard’s NAGPRA Advisory Committee, helped with the repatriation and took part in the ceremony.

“It’s a joyful moment,” the first tenured professor of Native American history said. “This has been a long collaboration and a good one, and we’ve found ways of helping each other. When we do these things, it reflects care of the objects, that these objects are going back to where they are meant to be. It’s a rightness, a rebalancing.”

Read entire article at Harvard Gazette