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The story of an Ojibwe drum shows how auction houses can help — or hurt — efforts to repatriate Indigenous objects

Jaime Arsenault, the tribal historical preservation officer for the White Earth Nation, says sacred Native objects go up for sale on the private market all too often: “It’s a very painful Catch-22 situation that tribes find themselves in, I would say, on a weekly basis.”

The Chippewa wood and rawhide medicine drum shown in the Medicine’s Hall of Fame & Museum.
The Chippewa wood and rawhide medicine drum shown in the Medicine’s Hall of Fame & Museum.
Medicine’s Hall of Fame & Museum

Dr. Bruce Hodges began collecting began his collection of “medical history” over 50 years ago, displaying items in the waiting room of his general practitioner office in Kansas. As his patients grew older, he shifted to geriatric practice, and his collection grew ever larger, to over 5,000 objects. Around 2003, he devised a plan to open a museum to show the history of medicine through these objects.

Hodges opened Medicine’s Hall of Fame Museum in 2013. A news report includes descriptions of the collection, including a 17th century set of books by Hippocrates, a “healing drum” set used by “a secret society of the Chippewa tribe,” and “a rare Lakota medicine pipe.” The report also notes an example “the head shrinking technique mastered by the Jivaro Indians of Ecuador and Peru.”

That head went up for auction earlier this month on Mayo Auction and Realty, along with the museum’s other inventory. The museum had moved to a new location in March of 2020, but did not survive the pandemic.

Divided into categories of Antiquities, Africa and Egypt, Native America, and Apothecary, the objects listed for the auction sale included: Native robes, drums, shields, ceremonial masks, rattles.

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When the items were posted online in early November, Jaime Arsenault, the tribal historical preservation officer for the White Earth Nation, found out about it.

She zeroed in on a “Chippewa Wood and Rawhide Medicine Drum” commonly referred to as a “big drum” within many Ojibwe communities.

The drum’s dates back as far as the early 1900s. Painted in bright colors, with beautiful beads and thimbles adorning its diameter,  it has four bent sticks, which are also painted and decorated with brass tacks.

Arsenault realized the significance of such drums and will be working with individuals from drum societies to help determine the best keeping place for these drums. According to Arsenault, while White Earth Nation was concerned about this auction there was concern from other tribes as well. Many of the tribes collaborate on repatriation issues, she said.

Arsenault is the designated repatriation representative for White Earth, and also manages its tribal archives. She’s been working on repatriation ever since the U.S. passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGRA) in 1990, which provides a process for museums and institutions that receive federal funds to transfer Native American cultural items back to tribes.

Arsenault says sacred Native objects go up for sale on the private market all too often. “It’s a very painful Catch-22 situation that tribes find themselves in, I would say, on a weekly basis,” Arsenault says,“because there are auctions happening every week in some community somewhere desperately trying to get something that left in uncertain circumstances.”

In any given year, there are thousands of auctions that occur throughout the U.S. and internationally, according to Arsenault. “Tribal nations and organizations such as the Association on American Indian Affairs are left trying to monitor every auction everywhere simultaneously to locate cultural heritage items of significance to American Indian Tribes,” she says. “At times, the work can be overwhelming for many because there is just so much of it.” Adding to the problem is the lack of time to try to reach the auction house and explain the item’s importance.

According to Arsenault, sacred items for Anishinaabe people are believed to be alive, and to have spirit. “Essentially, you don’t auction off your relatives,” Arsenault says.

According to Arsenault, many cultural and sacred items left Indigenous communities under extreme duress. “People were having items forcibly removed from them, or they were parting with them through painful efforts to try to access food or medicine during periods of government-sanctioned food scarcity or prolonged illness,” she says.

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Before the United States passed NAGPRA, there hadn’t been accountability for museums and other institutions that held looted or stolen items — including sacred objects and human remains stolen from graves.

“NAGPRA kind of changed the landscape of some of those practices,” says Brenda Child, Northrop professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota.

NAGPRA created a process for institutions to return items to tribes. In many cases, this process is ongoing. The Weisman Art Museum, for instance, faced harsh criticism after the Minnesota Daily broke the story of the Weisman’s inaction around the Mimbres Collection of human remains and burial belongings unearthed by anthropology professors in the 1920s. The Weisman recently received $239,912 in funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services as part of reconciliation efforts in the wake of the scandal, according to the Star Tribune.

But NAGPRA only covers federally funded institutions, like museums that receive national government grants, universities and other institutions that receive federal funding (including COVID-19 relief). It doesn’t cover individual collectors, auction houses, or private dealers.

The legal recourse for tribes wanting their objects back is a messy one. “It’s hard, because there aren’t currently laws that protect tribal nations when it comes to auctions,” Arsenault says. “It’s just a very strange gray area where we find ourselves in.”

Still, while there aren’t current laws that individuals with private collections or auction houses have to consult with source communities, including American Indian Tribes, “this doesn’t mean that they can’t choose to do this on their own,” Arsenault says. “I would highly recommend that if individuals or auctions houses believe they potentially have cultural heritage items of significance that they reach out to the tribal historic preservation office or designated repatriation representative to have a conversation.” She adds many potential buyers want assurance that those types of items were ethically sourced before they bid.

For help, Arsenault looked to Revere Auction House, based in the Twin Cities.

Years ago, Revere Auctions received a call from the Association on American Indian Affairs informing the business that they may have sacred objects for sale on their auction. “We said, OK, and we looked into it,” says Sean Blanchet, Revere Auction’s co-owner. Revere began working closely with AAIA, and were invited to attend a conference.

Revere then established a policy that requires all Native American items to be reviewed by tribal experts before they are sold so that buyers can have more confidence that they are purchasing items that are appropriate to collect.

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From there, they created an ethics statement for their auction house posted on their website. “We’ve made it part of our business to facilitate communication between collectors and tribes,” Blanchet says. They’ve also purchased items from auctions on behalf of tribes. Last year, Revere helped secure an important sacred scroll for the White Earth nation through a consortium of donors.

When the Ojibwe drum kit went up for sale on Mayo’s Auction, Arsenault approached Revere for help.

That was after Arsenault had approached the museum and also the auction house. The latter refused to repatriate the objects back to White Earth.

“The auction house said, no, we’re not going to help you buy these things. You’ve got to just bid on them like everybody else,” Blanchet says.

Unfortunately, bidding on an item increases its value, which only increases the problem. In this case, Revere Auctions purchased the items and then returned them to the tribe, absorbing the cost.

Arsenault says Revere took their earlier conversations to heart about the importance of returning objects that belong to tribes.  “Revere Auctions is a great example of an auction house that took the time to reevaluate their own internal policies and goes beyond the minimum that laws require,” Arsenault says. “Revere Auctions has been very receptive to what Tribes have to say about specific items.”

For Revere’s recent help acquiring the Ojibwe drums: “We are beyond grateful to Revere Auctions for their willingness to assist.”

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I wasn’t able to reach Dr. Hodges — he’s in his 90s. I did speak with his son, Robin Hodges. Hodges says both he and his father are enrolled Choctaw members. He says he’s told reporters who have called about the issue, “We are American Indians. Just butt out of it.”

Hodges that he had received a call from Arsenault asking for the museum to take the drum kit off the auction, but at that point, a contract with Mayo had already been signed. On learning the drums had been returned, Hodges said he was pleased. “If they repatriated it, we are happy,” he says.

Mayo did not respond to an emailed request in time for publication.