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Lack of funding threatens Museum of the Plains Indian

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BROWNING, Mont. – The Museum of the Plains Indian, located in Browning, is owned by the federal government and rests on ground owned by the Blackfeet Tribe. The museum has one of the better collections of items from northern Plains tribes – upwards of 3,000 items – but its future is in doubt.

A year ago, the Department of Interior proposed ending funding for this museum and two others, located in Oklahoma and South Dakota, at the end of fiscal year 2007. Many question what might happen should federal funding be discontinued and worry these irreplaceable collections might be moved away or scattered.

The Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1935 created the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, whose mission was to educate people about Indian traditions and to stop the counterfeiting of Native art. Museums were never a big part of that mission. Meanwhile, the BIA had created several museums, including the MPI in 1941. The BIA eventually lost interest in the museums and provided little supervision. In 1964 administration of the museums was transferred to the IACB.

The MPI continued to be on the outside, governed by boards more interested in arts and crafts, and appropriations were maintained at levels that didn’t even allow for a full-time curator at the museum. David Dragonfly, Blackfeet artist, serves as the acting curator but must refer most budget requests to Washington, D.C., for approval. The base budget runs between $80,000 and $100,000 a year, probably a third of what is needed and well below anything but a bare subsistence level. Funding levels have remained basically flat for a number of years.

The bill to end federal funding did serve the purpose of focusing more attention on the MPI than it has received for many years. Both the House and Senate Appropriations committees have since told Interior they don’t want funding to end for the museums.

“Pretty strong messages have been sent from both the House and Senate,” IACB Director Meredith Stanton commented. “To the best of my knowledge, the museums are not slated to close in September 2007.”

Ruthann Knudson, executive director for a group called Friends of the Museum of the Plains Indian, strongly supports maintaining the museum under federal control but with greatly increased funding. “At this point I don’t have any doubt that Congress will see that the current level of funding is maintained, but that level is starving these museums to death. Interior needs to take a serious look at these museums. As long as they’re subjected to the whims of the commissioners on IACB I think they’ll always be vulnerable.”

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Stanton agreed with the funding aspect. “The three museums could definitely benefit if the Department of Interior wanted to add funding for them.”

IACB has a budget only slightly more than $1 million. “Out of that pot we have to enforce the Indian Arts and Crafts Act on a national level, do economic development for Native artisans and their tribes,
and operate the three museums. In this environment of really tight budgets, the department and commissioners are trying to figure our best options to keep the money flowing. We have been under significant political pressure the last 10 years in particular to shift our focus to law enforcement rather than on the museums,” Stanton said.

“Being a federal museum is important,” Knudson commented. “The federal government took on fiduciary responsibilities for activities when they made this collection. They can’t be given away and can’t be traded. It’s a wonderful array of things. It’s critical they don’t leave this museum. It needs congressional support and a community of people who care and are involved. At this point we need support as a federal museum, but maybe down the road it will become a tribal museum.”

That support has recently come from several major entities. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer has written to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, stating: “The museum is a great source of pride for the people of Montana, Indian and non-Indian alike. … It is a link to our past as well as an expression of the continuing vitality of the Indian cultures of the Northern Plains.” He concluded by writing, “I ask that you support the allocation of funds to maintain and improve the Museum of the Plains Indian.”

Earl Old Person, chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, had similar comments, encouraging not only continued federal funding but also funds to meet maintenance needs that have been long overlooked.

The Montana Arts Council also wrote to Kempthorne, saying it would be “an affront” to many if funding were not continued and increased, and called the museum “an invaluable resource for the rest of the nation.”

Stanton appreciates this support. “It’s always very heartening and encouraging to get letters like the one from Governor Schweitzer and others. Frankly, we’ve been receiving support letters not only for the Browning museum but the other two as well. I think there’s a strong interest in the museums.”