Museum officials recommend that state return rare, 200-year-old
wampum belt to tribe.
A historic wampum belt that has been locked in a vault at the State
Museum for decades is about to be returned to the Mohawks who say
they are its rightful owners.
and officials at the museum are recommending the state Board of
Regents approve the return under federal repatriation laws, which
say that Native American groups have the right to reclaim significant
artifacts from places such as museums.
Regents are expected to approve the request during their meeting
later this week. While the "Mohawk Wampum Belt," has been
in the museum's collection since 1898, the three main governing
bodies representing the Mohawk people just last month agreed to
request the object's return, said Sheree Bonaparte, historical preservation
officer for the St. Regis Mohawks, who live on a reservation known
to the tribe as Akwesasne that straddles the border of New York
think everybody recognized it belongs here," said Bonaparte.
"It's a written record of the community itself."
-- tiny decorative beads fashioned from the distinctive quahog clam
shells of Long Island -- hold deep spiritual and historic significance
for Mohawks and other members of the old Iroquois Confederacy. They
provide visual cues for events in tribal history, commemorate treaties
and play a role in various ceremonies.
beads also served as currency among both Native Americans and early
European settlers, noted George Hamell, an ethnology collections
manager for the State Museum.
precise meaning of the Mohawk belt, which depicts a pair of men
and wolves looking outward from the center of the object, is unclear,
said Hamell and Bonaparte.
estimates it was made between 1760 and 1780. It was donated to the
museum in 1898 by Harriet Maxwell Converse, a wealthy New York City
woman who wanted to preserve such items for posterity at a time
when they were rapidly disappearing, said Hamell.
this point, the tribe would like it back," Hamell added, explaining
that wampum belts have been returned to other Iroquois tribes since
repatriation laws went into effect in 1990.
governing entities at Akwesasne, the Mohawk Nation of Council Chiefs
and the Mohawk Council, have been seeking the belt's return for
several years, but the third, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, also had
to agree to the request since that organization has federal recognition
as a Native American tribe, Hamell explained.
wasn't immediately clear why, after several years of discussion,
the St. Regis agreed to seek repatriation in November. The three
entities, though, have sometimes been at odds over a variety of
issues such as the construction of casinos on sovereign Indian territory.
other tribes, including the Oneidas, have had wampum belts returned
in recent years from private collectors as well as museums. The
belts are priceless and would likely be worth hundreds of thousands
of dollars, although they would almost certainly have to be sold
on the black market, Hamell said.
Mohawk wolf belt had at one time been on display but was locked
away in 1971, when Native Americans began seeking their return.
was quite tense at the time," said Hamell.