Scarcity Mindset As A Hurdle to Museum Accountability

By now there should be no doubt that most museums, which display or hold Native American artifacts, directly benefit from grave robbing, or the often racist, prejudiced language and ignorant beliefs regarding Native Americans first uttered by now dead anthropologists [like Alfred Kroeber], and perpetuated by the ailing volunteers and aging septuagenarians responsible for interpreting and curating these artifacts today.

Many of these museums do no care to get the information or facts straight, and continue to present California Native Americans as “extinct”, “disappeared”, and brush off or dismiss any mention of actual living Native people as someone trying to raise trouble.

Advocates for the truthful portrayal, accurate naming, and return of tribal objects and remains are often called “hostile”, dismissed as rabble rousers, and subjected to projection by the very people who should have read White Fragility.

Even more infuriating is the belief consulting with any Native American individual on any subject–whether or not it’s related to the stolen Tribal Grave Goods or Ceremonial Objects in these Museum’s possession–is used as cover for the Museum to continue to disregard the wishes of the very real, and still living Native American people who have a lawful claim, and a legal right to demand the return and repatriation of these Native American Tribal Resources and Cultural Objects.

In fact, many of the people museums choose to consult with regarding Native American artifacts are not Native Americans at all.

Truthfully, Native American people are consistently shut out of events, exhibitions and lectures about their own culture and identity.

A lot of apologists will say “it’s not like this anymore”; or dismiss the Standard Operating Procedures museums as a thing of the past…. But these conditions till persist.

Native American People continue to be discounted, ignored; and their history, culture and contributions continue to be minimized and ignored.

But the truth remains: The artifacts and objects on display in most museums have been stolen from Native American People, their graves, and do not belong to the museums who refuse to return them.

There are three main reasons why Museums refuse to return Tribal Cultural Objects.

The first is that there is no Federally Recognized Tribe which claims these objects to return them to. This is especially true for the Repatriation of Native American Remains.

It’s a shame that these institutions are unwilling to do the research and work necessary to properly identify Tribal Cultural Objects and Native American Remains to repatriate the same way they did the research to identify and prepare the same goods and burials for exhibition.

It’s despicable the way Museums claim such helplessness and ignorance when it comes time to give stolen objects back, even though the exact same objects are the she subjects of fundraising events and lectures proudly given by white anthropologists, and non-native experts, even today.

Charlene Nijmeh, the Chairwoman of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area, talks about how the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe was removed from the rolls of Native American Tribes simply for the purpose of denying Ohlone people in the San Francisco Bay Area their right to a tribal land base; because land in the Bay Area is so valuable.

In this same way, institutions like the University of California Berkeley (which holds the remains of thousands of Native Americans) are incentivized to claim an inability to identify which tribes the bodies in their crypt belong to.

So, too, are Museums incentivized to weaponize their incompetence in order to keep their pilfered goods.

The second reason is the fallacy that Native American Remains are “more valuable” as research or display objects.

This is a completely reprehensible argument that bears no merit, as far as I’m concerned. Simply because these same people would not agree that their family members are more valuable being dug up, defiled in the name of science, and put on display without so much of a whisper of their name or life’s story.

It’s worth saying, “If you’re not okay with your grandma being dug up and put on display, why are you doing it to mine?”

The blatant disrespect of Native American Graves as things which can be dug up, broken, moved to a landfill, reburied, and used as overspread is something which has been enabled by the statements of people like Alfred Kroeber, who explicitly declared entire tribes of Native Americans (like Ohlone people) “extinct”.

It s because these remains are considered “ancient”, or attributed to a time before our modern history where no living descendants exist–“pre-historic” for all intents and purposes–that oil companies, city, state and federal governments have dug up the bodies of our ancestors with impunity. And why money is still being given to universities to study our ancestors’ remains, even today.

But this is a fallacy, because Native American people are not extinct; they have not disappeared. We are still here, today. And we do not want anyone digging up our relatives to build pipelines, parking lots… or “for science”. Period!

(How come laws against the abuse of a corpse apply to every body except for Native American bodies?)

The third, and final, reason why institutions refuse to even consider returning stolen Native American artifacts to tribes is an extension of the preceding “more valuable for science” reasoning.

However, the very basis of some museums’ refusal to return tribal objects is clearly rooted in the scarcity mindset.

Museum Fallacy #3:

“If we give away all of our artifacts, we won’t have any left!”

“If we give away all of our artifacts, we won’t have any left!” This was actually said to me by a volunteer at the Alameda Museum.

This is dissonant because many museum’s holdings are made of stolen property. Repatriation is the only correct course of action; anything less is a travesty.

This standing also presumes the only thing of value the museum has to offer is the exhibition of original artifacts, no matter how broken or uninteresting those artifacts are; and, in spite of the fact that curators and museum staff and volunteers have no […] clue how those objects are used, where they actually came, or what the history of their use and development is.

In all of this, there is not even a hint of concern about whether or not the museum has a duty to investigate/research, find, and try to contact the tribe associated with the Native American objects and artifacts in their possession.

Consideration of actual Native American People is so far removed from the discussion, it’s a little ridiculous.

Representation of average museum volunteer docents. (AI-generated.)

Especially given the fact that these Museum are inviting Native American people to give lectures during Native American Heritage Month. (But consider the audience….)

The idea that there aren’t enough artifacts is a fallacy based upon a false sense of ownership and authority magically imbued by the mere possession of these stolen grave goods.

The implied scarcity mindsight that the only thing which gives museums like the Alameda Museum any value is a handful of broken pieces of bones and tools–which no one knows the use for (or even the names of)–is laughable in its appeal to ignorance.

The fact that Alameda Museum is not, and has never been, the place to see Native American artifacts belies this mindset as a straw man argument for the lack of interest or determination of the museum to change or do any better. But, in the end, it’s the museum which must do the work.

So let’s get down to brass tax here:

  1. Museums need to get real about the fact that no one cares whether or not they exhibit real artifacts if their exhibits are trash and don’t actually provide any education value; especially if Museum Staff & Volunteers don’t know anything about them. [There’s no value here.]
  2. Returning Native American Grave Goods is the right thing to do. (It’s probably illegal for museums to possess them.) And Museums owe money, and other restitution, to Tribes for their illegal conversion of Tribal Property.
  3. Contacting Tribes to begin the repatriation process is necessary.
  4. Museums need to seriously consider purchasing replicas made by Native American artisans in exchanging for the return of Grave Good and Ceremonial Objects.
  5. Museums are required to pay Indigenous People for their time and consultation at a rate commensurate with like professionals in the same or similar industries–regardless of whether or not those Indigenous Consultants have any academic credentials.

Indigenous Peoples’ lived experiences and actual subject matter expertise are more valuable than any degree.

Indigenous science is valid.

Indigenous science is a distinct, time-tested, and methodological knowledge system that can enhance and complement western science. Indigenous science is about the knowledge of the environment and knowledge of the ecosystem that Indigenous Peoples have. It is the knowledge of survival since time immemorial and includes multiple systems of knowledge(s) such as the knowledge of plants, the weather, animal behavior and patterns, birds, and water among others.

Indigenous people are experts.

Museums will do well to remember these facts when treating Indigenous People with the reverence and respect they deserve.

By Gabriel Duncan

Recognized descendant of the Utu Utu Gwaitu Benton Hot Springs Paiute Tribe. Adopted out of his tribe at birth, raised by white people in Alameda, California. Gabriel is the chief researcher, webmaster, graphic designer, cartographer, etc. of Alameda Native Art, and the Alameda Native History Project.