Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America

November 18, 2000 - Issue 23


Native Traditions, Handle Eagle Feathers, Cultural Items With Care

Native Artifacts Are Part Of Culture, Not Prizes To Be Bought, Sold

By Dorreen Yellow Bird, Herald Staff Writer


A Georgia man was charged with trafficking in feathers of bald and golden eagles when he tried to sell an eagle feather headdress over the Internet. The headdress belonged to Geronimo, a famous war chief of the Apache. It is wrong and illegal because obtaining eagle feathers not only reduces their population but erodes the culture of Native people by removing and disrespecting the spirit of the items.

I can look back at the years when I watched Native and cultural items disappear regularly from our once-large treasure house of cultural pieces. Some items are sacred while other are valuable to our history. Very few Native people knew how to stop the thievery. All we could do is stand by and watch our cultural and spiritual items pass out of our hands, and melt into museum showcases like water into dry sand. Some of us were astonished when we found those Grandfathers or Grandmothers staring back at us from their glass cages in some museum.

That's what happened when I lived in Washington, D.C. I was invited to a "showing" of artifacts from the Hidatsa and Mandan. As I wandered through the exhibit examining items of clothes, jewelry and regalia, I was stunned when I saw a large glass box in the center of the exhibit room containing an ancient, sacred ceremonial buffalo mask.

The grief that I felt down to the pit of my stomach turned to tears as I watched the buffalo. Its sorrow and anguish were so poignant that I was compelled to leave. My husband followed me and asked if I could see the same thing in the mask that he felt. We both knew it didn't belong there, but to ask the people of the Smithsonian to return it to the people was futile, we knew.

Paul Good Iron, who is Hidatsa from Mandaree, N.D., told me the sacred mask was used in the "buffalo dance." The purpose of the dance was to bring back the buffalo -- the source of food and prosperity for the people. He compared it to items such as the crucifix that churches call holy. "Our items are no different," he told me.

Some of the people who understand the sacredness of some artifacts, have taken drastic action to retrieve them or punish the people who sell them. When I worked for a West Coast tribe, there were sporadic incidents in which artifact hunters dug up tribal graves and sold the artifacts they found. This kind of grave robbing was the match that lit the fire that resulted in the killing of an artifact hunter. After the incident, the young vigilantes-turned-killers fled to Canada. If I remember the incident correctly, they were involved a gun fight with the FBI. Some were killed and others jailed.

I found items of the Sahnish at a state museum a few summers ago. The items were dresses, regalia, moccasins, jewelry and other things. I'm sure the items weren't stolen. They probably were gifts or purchases by people who lived on or near the reservation. It didn't, however, occur to these people that the items, after their owners' deaths, might have been more appropriately returned to the tribal museums.

Other cultural pieces were lost because Native people sold them thinking they would be taken care of better in a place like the Smithsonian -- not realizing, of course, that they would lose ownership.

A Hidatsa bundle was one such item. It was sold to the Smithsonian by the "keeper." I believe he thought it was best for the bundle's protection. The story is that only after the bundle was returned did the Dust Bowl of 1931 to 1939 end. The bundle now is being cared for by a devoted keeper.

There are other artifacts that have almost slipped out of our hands. One is the Fort Laramie Treaty document. Four Bears, a Hidatsa, was charged as the keeper. The document passed through several generations, until the daughter of the current "keeper" tried to sell it to a museum in Wyoming. Through court action, the Three Affiliated Tribes stopped the sale and assumed the role as "holder" of the document.

There is that same twist to the rightful owner of the Geronimo headdress. The Mescalero Apache of southern New Mexico filed a claim saying Geronomo was their war chief. The Comanche tribe of Oklahoma also put in a bid. They said the Apache did not wear long-feather war bonnets, but their tribe did.

Ownership of this artifact now has shifted to a federal court. It either will go to one of the tribes or to an Interior Department museum.

I say, give the headdress to one of the tribes. Gernomio's courage, his inspiration, are represented in the headdress and belong to his people. Don't relegate this piece of the culture to a glass cage in a museum of the Department of the Interior, where so much of our spirit has been put in the past.

Funary Items at the Natural History Museum of the Three Affiliated Tribes

Three Affiliated Tribes

Yellow Bird's e-mail address is or she can be reached at (701) 780-1228.



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