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Repatriation process only just beginning for Haida

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CHICAGO - With the remains of 160 Haida safely removed after their storage in a Chicago museum for a century, this Canadian First Nation now wants other objects returned.

The public display between the Haida repatriation committee and the directors of The Field Museum was amicable during the Oct. 17 ceremony, a mood the British Columbians want to continue during further negotiations. All of the parties praised each other for their patience during a year of requests and committee work as required during any repatriation exercise.

Still, there is a frustration among Indian society when bodies and artifacts continue to be kept by public and private collectors. Vince Collison of the Haida repatriation committee didn't mince words about the some of the futility his group has faced.

"If we took the objects that belonged to the kings and queens and presidents of your (non-Aboriginal) society and put them in our museum, how would you feel?" Collison rhetorically asked during the press conference. "This is why we thank The Field Museum for taking the high road and their respect for working diligently and thoroughly for bringing this together."

Museum guidelines state because it's bound by a five-step procedure involving numerous levels of executives and trustees, the process is methodical before returning any items to an identifiable group. One of those decision makers is Dr. Jonathan Haas, a curator in the anthropology department. As a historian he stated he must remain objective throughout the process although he confessed maintaining this neutrality was difficult.

"We're not just fixing things from the past but we must look towards the future and to balance this for a public place that serves two million people per year," said Haas.

That people and antiquities were obtained, or stolen, so many years ago, Haas said there was a purpose both then and today for keeping these items. Academically, these collections permitted the study of languages and cultures and within a museum setting allows urban citizens a glimpse of lifestyles which otherwise are inaccessible.

"Were these awful people (collectors) who did this? I don't think they were and I hope in my heart they weren't. These were people who were disappearing (Haida) and people were being lost all over the world."

Among the hundreds of cultural pieces the museum possesses and displays, the most prominent sought by the Haida are the two totem poles located in the foyer. Standing 40 feet each, these wooden artifacts are centerpieces for the institution and contrast sharply amidst the marble and white decor of the expansive hallway.

Haas pointed out that as The Field Museum is bound by state and federal laws, any objects, however obtained initially, have been placed in the public's trust. Those laws, if broken, would jeopardize the museum's funding and the non-profit status.

"We can't just give things away and there is solid foundation to the law and we're bound by those laws," Haas said.

When it was stated how these two totem poles have become part of Chicago's history, Collison said that wasn't acceptable.

"Yes, they are a part of your history but these poles are ours. Our history is stored in your museum," Collison stated. "We are the living descendants of the people who are in the drawers of other museums throughout the world (and) we're here to bring home what is rightfully ours."

Since the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was enacted in 1990, Haas has received only six other requests for repatriation. While the Haida bodies were returned within the year, some tribes have waited more than a decade for their ancestors' return. Haas said this length of time is in part because not every tribe has a ceremony regarding re-burial or what to do with the remains. Also, stated Haas, the Haida were particularly organized in this process which helped expedite the matter.

"Not all tribes have the cooperation between the clans (as the Haida showed) and so they're still working out how they want to handle that," the curator said.

There is no particular timetable towards when other objects, if ever, are slated to be returned. The museum hasn't ruled out exchanges or further repatriation and the Haida have expressed they can wait on the matter but won't let the issue fade away. Their bigger concern is the repatriation of another 200 or so of their brethren from other museums globally.