SANTA ANA — While museums across the country rushed to meet a deadlinethis week for cataloguing Native American artifacts, the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art was able to look ahead to the next step.
Under 1990's Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, museums must send summaries of sacred objects to tribes represented in their collections. The tribes must then strike some sort of agreement with the museums on what they will get back. More than 750 tribes are expected to be affected.
Tuesday marked the act's first deadline.
"What the law calls for today (Tuesday) is that we have to mail to the federal government and to tribes a narrative survey of our collections," said Paul Apodaca, curator of Native American and Folk Art at the Bowers.
While many museums were faced with a monumental task, the Bowers had computerized its collection records a few years ago and was able to mail in its lists two weeks before the deadline. Now begins the consulting process with tribes that may choose to seek the return of some artifacts, Apodaca said.
The law covers burial remains, sacred objects and patrimonial artifacts, defined by Apodaca as objects central to the continuation of a culture (for the United States, the Constitution would be considered a patrimonial object, for example). Native American groups believe displaying such objects is sacrilegious and desecrates their culture.
Apodaca said the Bowers has a small amount of human remains and two artifacts, a mask and a headdress, that could qualify for repatriation, representing only about 1% of the museum's total Native American collection. The museum and the tribes affected must agree on a detailed inventory of objects to be repatriated by Nov. 16, 1995.
Most of the Bowers collection, primarily baskets, ceramics and other objects from Native Americans of the Southwest, is unaffected by the new law. Apodaca called the collection significant but smaller than those of some area museums that draw from tribes throughout the United States (such as the Southwest Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History).
"The panicky situation that people keep trying to describe is that after today (Tuesday), we're going to start handing stuff out the back door," Apodaca said. "That's just not true."
In the Midwest, meeting the first deadline was "an enormous task" for the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, which has about 200,000 burial objects, curator Jonathan Haas said. It cost the museum more than $200,000 in extra manpower, paperwork and time.
The museum has already returned a sacred sun-dance wheel to the Northern Arapaho tribe and human remains to the Blackfeet tribe and a Hawaiian tribe. But Haas said he feels his museum will lose only a fraction of its collection.
"The legislation was never intended to loot museums," Haas said. "It was intended to provide a means for Native Americans to get back objects which probably never should have left the reservation to begin with."
Wire service reports contributed to this story.