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Massachusetts museum to return to Sioux more than 100 items, some from Wounded Knee massacre

The Barre, Massachusetts, Museum Association announced Monday it plans to return approximately 110 items to the Oglala Sioux tribe in South Dakota. The museum has had the collection for more than a century.

The objects include pipes, weapons and children's moccasins. They were donated to the tiny museum in the late 1800s, by Frank Root, a traveling showman.

Some were taken from the bodies of people massacred at Wounded Knee, South Dakota by the U.S. Cavalry on December 29, 1890.

"This is not our history of Barre. This is the Lakota Sioux's history and we should honor the Lakota Sioux and what they desire," Ann Meilus, president of the Barre Museum Association, said at a virtual news conference Monday announcing the repatriation.

Cedric Broken Nose, a descendent of Chief Big Foot, who was killed at Wounded Knee, thanked the museum for housing the items and said tribal members will hold healing ceremonies in South Dakota, at the site of Wounded Knee on the anniversary of the massacre, once the items are returned.

"It's a time of healing for the people," he said, saying he and others are descendants of those massacred. "We are still alive. We are still here. So, we are looking at this as an historical event."

Returning the items to tribal leaders has taken decades, with Sioux people visiting the museum at least as early as the 1990s.

In April this year tribal members from the Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River reservations came to Barre, viewed the collection and asked the museum board to return the objects. Afterwards, the museum board voted to start the process of repatriation.

Aaron Miller, who was hired by the museum in June to guide the research and repatriation process said approximately seven of the objects have small labels that say, “Found at Wounded Knee, December 1890.”

In addition to the labels, the items were described in articles published in two Boston newspapers in December 1891.

"Further substantiating that these objects came from Wounded Knee," Miller said of the seven objects.

The museum photographed, catalogued and moved more than 100 objects to archival boxes.

Because the museum doesn't receive federal funding, it doesn't fall under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the federal repatriation law. Even so, Miller facilitated a similar process.

The museum reached out to native communities that may have have had a claim in the objects, sharing the photographs and letting them know what was there.

Kevin Killer, president of the Oglala Sioux tribe at the Pine Ridge Reservation, deemed all of the objects as sacred and connected to the Sioux nation. Under NAGPRA, sacred objects must be returned.

The Oglala Sioux will receive the objects at a public ceremony in Barre in November. They will be brought back to South Dakota and housed at first, at Oglala Lakota College.

"Intertribally they will work out where each object will go," Miller said.

Manny Iron Hawk from the Cheyenne River Reservation was one of the Sioux people who visited the museum in April. His great, great grandfather Ghost Horse was killed at Wounded Knee. He said he is happy that the items will come home.

"Our relatives will have a more restful place. Peace. Peace with them," Iron Hawk said. "It is good that Oglala brothers and sisters stepped up and they are going to bring them back."

Iron Hawk said after the ceremony there will be a meeting.

"And then we will decide what to do with our relative's items," he said.

Michael Hecrow, a descendant of those killed at Wounded Knee, is an artist. He examined the photographs of the objects in the Barre collection and recognized some of the designs and the colors that the Lakota used in the late nineteenth century.

"Most of the designs that are on those objects are geometric designs that come from Lakota people, Plains people," he said.

He said there were also objects with beadwork that had colors that were common to tribes like the Crow and the Cheyenne.

Miller said objects that have not been claimed by the Sioux "will remain at the museum and are part of ongoing conversations with the Crow and dozens of other tribes and communities regarding their future."

Tribal members plan to hold a ceremony with the objects at Wounded Knee in December, on the anniversary of the massacre.

Corrected: October 12, 2022 at 10:45 AM EDT
An earlier version of this article identified the wrong century in relation to some of the designs and the colors that the Lakota used in various objects. The correct time period is the nineteenth century.
Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.

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