Cusack-McVeigh believes that, even with new laws, serious problems persist. “Grave-robbing is still happening,” she says. “People still have human remains in private collections.”
Nonetheless, Cusack-McVeigh describes the Miller collection as striking for its size, diversity of origins, and the “deplorable” storage condition of the human remains. “They were mixed in ways that would sadden most human beings,” she recalls.
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Receiving repatriations has both cultural and spiritual significance, says Dorene Red Cloud, the assistant curator of Native American art at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis. “When someone’s ancestral remains are not at home, and they’re not at rest, that causes a disruption in the spirit,” says Red Cloud, a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe. “And that affects people.”
Even items that seem utilitarian, such as fragments of pottery, may be meaningful to the descendants of its owner, she adds. For example, such possessions might have been buried with an individual for use in the afterworld.
The first repatriation from Miller’s collection happened in 2016, when the FBI returned the remains of about a dozen individuals to multiple tribes in South Dakota. Cusack-McVeigh stood graveside during the burial, thinking, “They’re finally home.”
During his travels, Miller had performed Christian missionary work in Haiti and other locales. His Haitian collection gave Cusack-McVeigh a series of sleepless nights. Large shipping crates—loaded with 5,000 pounds of objects—traveled from Indianapolis to Miami to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. When Cusack-McVeigh saw this cargo unwrapped at last at the Haitian Bureau of Ethnology Museum, she breathed a sigh of relief. The 480 objects had arrived safely.
These returns were particularly important because they included many objects that predated the arrival of Christopher Columbus, says Joseph Sony Jean, a Haitian archaeologist and postdoctoral researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies in Leiden. “There are a lot of people who thought that the history of Haiti started in 1492,” he says.
In fact, people have inhabited the island where modern-day Haiti lies for at least 6,000 years. Columbus arrived to find an organized indigenous culture. “It is important to use these objects in Haiti, now, to have a better understanding of the deep history of Haiti,” Jean says.
The collection included a wooden duho, or ceremonial seat, and several axes. Cusack-McVeigh says the smaller, less flashy objects touch her the most. She noticed two necklaces of handmade clay beads. “I think about the individuals who made and wore these pieces,” she says, “because they’re personal.”
The unwrapping was a poignant scene, says Carpenter, who felt gratified to see the objects returned to their rightful owners. “There was a whole lot of smiling, and hugging of artifacts, and kissing of artifacts,” he says. “It was just emotionally profound.”
This post appears courtesy of Sapiens.