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Field Museum returns bones to islanders

Chicago’s Field Museum is to return bones that were previously dug up from cemeteries on the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia.

Chicago Sun Times [1]

Field returning bones to native group
March 26, 2003

The Field Museum will return bones–mostly skulls–from about 160 native people who lived, logged and fished from islands off the coast of British Columbia.

The remains were dug up from cemeteries on the Queen Charlotte Islands and brought to Chicago in the early 1900s. Such returns represent one of the hottest international issues for museums.

The Field’s decision comes as Yale University’s Peabody Museum is in talks with the Peruvian government over Inca artifacts discovered in Machu Picchu in 1911.

An exhibit from that fabled ”lost city” of the Incas, which opened in January at Yale, will begin a two-year national tour in May and is scheduled for the Field Museum in fall 2004.

A couple of years ago, the Field got a letter from the Haida Nation, a native group on the Queen Charlottes, asking if it had remains. It did, and negotiations for their return began.

”We consider human remains to be something that is not for general display,” said Jonathan Haas, anthropological archeologist at the Field.

“These are their grandfathers and great-grandfathers. [The material] never should have been dug up. It wasn’t dug up for a scientific reason,” he said.

Because the remains are from Canada, they aren’t covered by the U.S. repatriation law, and the museum is returning them of its own free will, said Andrea Bell, a member of the Haida committee formed to get remains back from museums.

She saw the bones here earlier this month.

“We believe there’s a spirit still attached to these remains and they don’t belong in metal cabinets,” she said.

There are no histories with the remains.

“All we know is which village they come from,” Bell said.

At the time they were collected, museums had set out “to get some of everything in natural history,” Haas said.

“We thought we could go out and collect the diversity of the world: You collect one emu and you collect one Haida.”

It was “science run amok,” he said.

Traditionally, Haida dead were buried in the ground or in caves or funeral boxes atop mortuary poles.

Although last year, the Haida reclaimed about 48 remains from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Field’s “is our first large American collection,” Bell said.

In October, when the remains change hands at the Field, the Haida committee will chant songs in their almost forgotten language and dance. They will be able to use Haida regalia, masks, hats, blankets and hand-held drums from the Field’s collections.

Although Yale’s Peruvian collection is the target of current talks about artifact ownership, Peru isn’t trying to get back items from the Field, Haas said. The difference is that Yale’s Machu Picchu items arguably are “essential national patrimony,” he said.

The principles in any return of cultural objects is difficult even if they aren’t human remains. A case in point is the squabble over the Elgin Marbles, which Greece wants from the British Museum.

Along with 17 other great museums and galleries of the world, the Art Institute of Chicago has signed a declaration to oppose wholesale repatriation. It underscores how important museums are in the preservation and appreciation of culture.