The repatriation of sacred medicine masks from the National Museum of the American Indian to the Haudenosaunee is one step in a long process of reconciliation between museums and Native Americans. That reconciliation is attempting to mend the tension that exists over how museums handle human remains, sacred objects and the national patrimony of aboriginal nations. There is also a movement to reconcile anthropological theories and Native American views of history, cultures and beliefs.
The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), formerly the Museum of the American Indian-Heye Foundation had acquired hundreds of culturally-sensitive items belonging to the Haudenosaunee and its member nations – Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and the Tuscarora. The reconciliation began when the old Heye Foundation returned sacred wampum to the Haudenosaunee at the Grand River Territory. These wampum are considered communal property and cannot be sold or given away by individuals. As it turned out those wampum left the community without the full knowledge and consent of the traditional people, violating a basic human right to religious and political expression.
The nest step in the reconciliation was the return of sacred wampum to the Grand Council of Chiefs of the Haudenosaunee from the National Museum of the American Indian. The wampum was returned as an essential part of the ongoing cultural patrimony of the Haudenosaunee-items that help to solidity our identity and beliefs.
Today, another step in that reconciliation has taken place with the return of the sacred medicine masks to be used by the traditional Haudenosaunee for their ongoing health and well-being. This process has been a long and at times difficult path. However, we have arrived at the repatriation after nearly 30 years of efforts by the traditional Haudenosaunee and the new polices of the National Museum of the American Indian on repatriation.