‘Give them the opportunity to take them back’: Seattle museums pushed to repatriate native artifacts

A federal decree is forcing museums across the country to shut down exhibits and begin the process of returning indigenous artifacts. Reports show two Seattle institutions: The Burke Museum and the Seattle Art Museum, are taking steps towards repatriation.

Community organizer and indigenous woman Colleen Echohawk (Pawnee, Athabascan) tells FOX 13 she’s encouraged by the news.

"People who love museums, they shouldn’t be afraid, and they shouldn’t be upset about this. They should be excited," remarked Echohawk. "Give them the opportunity to take them back." 

As CEO of tribally-owned Eighth Generation, Echohawk is on a mission to end the cultural appropriation of indigenous art. Many of the blankets, prints and designs featured in her downtown Seattle store hail from tribal traditions. 

"We have some incredibly beautiful designs here that go right back to some of the very traditional Coast Salish art and design you might see in a museum," said Echohawk.

Right across the street, from Eighth Generation is the Seattle Art Museum. Curators there just announced they removed five cultural jewels from Alaska’s Tlingit tribe from public viewing. 

"There’s a cost, there is pain from the tribal communities. So many of the things taken from the native community are family items," explained Echohawk. "Many of them are incredibly sacred."

The moral quandary surrounding the rightful ownership of these cultural treasures has intensified in recent years, prompting international conversations about stolen artifacts. The Metropolitan Museum of Art made headlines by repatriating sixteen sculptures to Cambodia and Thailand, while the British Museum faced controversy over the delayed restitution of the famous Benin Bronzes.

"There’s a lack of funding, there’s a lack of desire to really do it because its hard work," said Echohawk. "So what if it’s hard, let’s do the work, let’s do the right thing." 

The U.S. Department of the Interior strengthened the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA): "The revised regulations streamline requirements for museums and federal agencies to inventory and identify Native American human remains and cultural items in their collections."  This new mandate took effect this past January.