Reflections on Repatriation with Philip Deloria

Jennifer Berglund  00:04

Welcome to HMSC Connects! where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I'll be your host. Today, I'm speaking with Phil Deloria, the Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History at Harvard, and the chair of the committee on degrees in history and literature. He's been working with the Peabody Museum as the chair of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, committee. Drawing from his past experiences at the University of Colorado and the University of Michigan, Phil is instrumental in guiding the Peabody in his efforts to repatriate culturally affiliated Native American human remains, and important objects to the cultures from which they came. He's here to talk to us about the importance of this work for Harvard, other museums throughout the country, and most importantly, the Native cultures involved. Here he is. Phil Deloria, welcome to the show! 


Phil Deloria  01:29

Thank you so much for having me. It's my pleasure to be here.


Jennifer Berglund  01:39

You're part of a prominent Native family from South Dakota. One that's known for its scholarship and activism. Tell me a bit about your family's history, and how did growing up in this environment influence you as a young man?


Phil Deloria  01:55

Yeah, my family is really interesting, and I say this humbly, an important family. And maybe one of the easiest ways to do it is to trace backwards. My father, Vine Deloria, Jr, really quite prominent author and intellectual and philosopher of Native American kinds of issues, a law and politics guy. He wrote a book called, Custer Died for Your Sins in 1969, which is really considered a kind of watershed, but he wrote 30 books over the course of his career. His dad, Vine Deloria Sr., was an Episcopal minister, really quite prominent in the church. His two sisters, Ella Deloria, worked at Columbia with Franz Boaz and Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead on anthropological kinds of things in linguistic matters in particular. And her sister, Mary Sully, who's the subject of one of my books was a quite extraordinary modernist artist. Their father, who was the first Philip J. Deloria, was an Episcopal minister at one of the very first Native clergy in South Dakota in the Niobrara Missionary District, Lakota and Dakota people. And his father, Saswe, was a quite prominent Yankton, Dakota leader and medicine man. And so the family has this very long tradition of leadership and intellectual work, and crossing over kind of work, translational kind of work between Native and non-Native cultures and societies. I grew up in the heyday of my dad's activism. And so it was quite an extraordinary thing, really, there were many activists and thinkers and political figures who passed through the house, who called us. My dad, he was a writer who wrote at night, and would sleep during the mornings, but people would call him in the mornings a lot. And so we'd pick up the phone and talk to really quite interesting and wonderful people. So this was just always part of our growing up. On the other hand, I think everybody's entitled to a little Oedipal complex as well, my dad was this, you know, kind of a super high achieving and very visible person that was easy to turn in other kinds of directions to carve out a bit of a path for oneself.


Jennifer Berglund  03:46

You didn't grow up thinking that you would go into this work, you sort of took a circuitous route to it. Before you were interested in all this, you were actually a professional musician and a high school band teacher. Tell me about that, and what was it that ultimately drew you back to this path?


Phil Deloria  04:04

So I was a very serious musician on the trombone. I went to University of Colorado, I started as a performance major. And like so many performance majors, I realized that there's such a thing as talent, you can have a certain measure of it, but there's always people with a lot more and, you know, so like many of my friends, we switched over to education. And then I was a middle school band teacher, and I soon taught elementary and in high school. You know what, I only did that for a couple years and then I started playing in a band and I'm a total journeymen musician, right. My talents are very mediocre and very average. I did pass through a couple of bands and it was a total declension narrative into wedding reception bands. One of the things I did while I was in the wedding reception band was I did do a master's degree in broadcast journalism. I started working in music video in Colorado and my dad at one point, he said two things. If you're going to mess around with your life, go back to school and get an extra degree. And he said, this is interesting, he said, you know, Deloria men just tend to mess around until they're about 30, and then a path kind of opens for them. And, you know, my dad saw the family and metaphysical kinds of terms that way. And you know, he was kind of right with me, at least in that respect. Part of my master's degree, I ended up doing a video documentary on Sioux Indian land claims and the Black Hills, which were really unfolding in the late 80s, you know, when I was doing this, and so I went up with my dad to a couple of Great Sioux Nation meetings about this. I, you know, went up with a camera several times and did interviews and, you know, put together this documentary. And in some ways, that's the thing that turned me back around away from music and more towards, it came through this sort of visual journalism kind of thing. And then as I was finishing my master's degree, Patti Limerick, at the University of Colorado, who was one of my mentors there said, you know, you should just keep going and do a PhD. And I thought, oh, that's odd. I never thought about that. So I applied to a couple of schools, and I got in, then I entered the academy, right, I became an academic. And curiously, when I finished my degree, my first job was at the University of Colorado, where my dad had actually landed. So the two of us were in the same department at the same time, and we actually shared an office for a semester or so.


Jennifer Berglund  06:07

That must have been so awkward sometimes. How in the world did you manage that?


Phil Deloria  06:14

You know, it was awkward, in a sort of sense that my dad always had a set of groupies around, you know, if people who love to come and hang out. And, you know, my dad was a smoker, you couldn't smoke in the offices, but my dad did anyway. And so that, you know, we had two separate desks in the office. But the secret was that I knew he was planning to retire. And he had a quite nice big office. And I figured, you know, if I can sort of get through this semester, so that was half of it. The other half was, it was actually quite sweet for my dad and I to be in the same space and to kind of reconnect in that setting. You know, we sort of had kind of been avoiding each other in but you know, there we are, we couldn't really avoid it. And so it was a nice semester, also, in that respect.


Jennifer Berglund  06:53

I want to go back to this documentary that you made. What was it, do you think, in the process of making that film that really drew you in?


Phil Deloria  07:03

Yeah, it's so interesting, right? Because I went in thinking of it as a subject that I was going to do. I mean, this is about showing your technical expertise as a documentary filmmaker, and it was a subject that seemed interesting, but I came out of it with the subject really being central and the technique of documentary filmmaking kind of being secondary. I think part of it was doing interviews, I interviewed Albert White Hat, who is a really quite important person, Rosebud Doris Leader Charge, they were reservation intellectuals who had thought long and deeply about language and culture and society. My dad was always operating in the legal and political kind of realm. And these are folks who were in that realm, but they're also in the cultural, you know, and social realm. They were attached to the Sinte Gleska college, you know, at Rosebud, and that's the tribal community college that's there on the Rosebud Reservation. And for some reason, that ended up being you know, kind of a little bit my home base. They were doing really interesting stuff with sort of indigenous archeo astronomy, and tracing old star legends and stories. And this is quite a vibrant intellectual world there that I was able to just sort of slide into in a small kind of way, you know, but I also found myself interested in the legal and political questions. That context there is the Treaty of 1868, which says for any subsequent agreements, three quarters of the Lakota men have to agree to sign on to that. And then after that, there's an agreement of 1877, which basically gives up so much land. And it's all fraudulent, right, three quarters of men did not sign on to this thing. And it was kind of fraud from start to finish. And so the Supreme Court in 1980, ruled that the language they use is this is the most ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealing in American history. So the history of it was interesting to me. And then what was doubly interesting was the way that it was playing out contemporary politics. Lakota and Dakota people were trying to figure out a, basically a co-management arrangement for the Black Hills. And Bill Bradley, the senator from New Jersey was sponsoring legislation and there was just a lot of interesting things, you know, going on at the time, and so I was pulled back into it in that sense. But I have to say, when I went to Yale, and was working on my PhD, I wasn't really so focused on those kinds of things. I was thinking of myself as a sort of historian of the west of Native peoples, but also of the west itself as a region. And then my dissertation in my first book ended up being really a straight up American Studies project, i'm an American Studies person, about white people who dress up like Indians. So it was a cultural history of white America, which had a lot of consequences for Native people, but it pointed in a slightly different direction.


Jennifer Berglund  09:37

Eventually, you got involved with NAGPRA and your first experience with it was at the Denver Art Museum, describe your first experience.


Phil Deloria  09:47

So NAGPRA is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act passed in 1990. You know, after 20 some years, 20 plus years, of activism on the part of Native people to reclaim the human remains, the cultural patrimony, the sacred objects that had ended up in American museums, mostly, you know, other kinds of collections. And so what NAGPRA says is if you are a federal institution, or if you receive federal money, you needed to start a process in 1990, that would lead to the repatriation of things across these four categories: human remains, funerary objects, cultural patrimony, sacred items. So institutions, beginning in the 90s, had to sort of engage in a process of inventory production, like what do you have in your collection? Consultation with tribes? What do tribes think about what you have? What do you think about what you have? You know, can you reach some sort of conclusions about these things. And then processes that would lead to the return of these objects and items. So I started at the University of Colorado in 1994, and one of the first things that really came up was NAGPRA implementation at the Denver Art Museum and the Colorado Historical Society. And they had partnered together to create a kind of NAGPRA oversight committee, and they shared a NAGPRA coordinator at that time, Roger Echo-Hawk. You know, this was my first exposure to it, and I went to these meetings, and I learned about NAGPRA and all of the complications that people were going through, you know, at the time. Some of the complications were things like museums were not entirely sure sort of how to go about what was happening. The production of inventories for museums with large collections was really quite challenging. Lots of institutions, including Harvard, had to bring on additional staff. Some of them, including Harvard, had to ask for extensions of the deadlines. You know, you had to get this done within a certain amount of time. If you imagine institutions from all over the country producing inventories and sending them out to tribes, you have to think about what that was like on the other side that, you know, here's a tribal office, receiving potentially hundreds of inventories from all these different institutions. Well, who's going to handle that? The tribes had to build capacity to handle these things. So the first decade of NAGPRA is sort of starting and stopping and a little bit challenging. One of the really interesting issues that we ran into early on was one item that was clearly did not really fall under NAGPRA, and yet the institution really felt like they wanted to return it. So was it possible to imagine stepping outside of the bounds of NAGPRA and making a return? It's entirely possible to imagine this, this it happened before NAGPRA was passed. But it turns out that the law itself as it exists, creates kinds of problems for you if you step outside of NAGPRA, and a lot of times those stepping outsides have to do with lineal descendant claims, and these things can get quite complicated. A lineal descendant shows up and says, well, you know, this is an object that really ought to be returned to me. But you know, of course, I mean, you know, if you're skipping three or four generations down, there's lots of lineal descendants. And, you know, they don't always agree, and it's not quite clear that we're the tribes interest and the lineal descendant interests, you know, come in. So all of these things can become really, really quite complicated. It's also the case that, in the archaeological contexts, museums, a lot of times and institutions, you know, partnered on archaeological expeditions. And so collections might be split. Human remains might be in one place, and associated funerary objects might be in another place. There's a lot of federal things which are owned by the federal government, which are in, you know, museum collections, and how do you navigate that? So it turns out, they passed the law and it felt like it had a kind of clarity and straightforward-ness to it. And once you got into the sort of nitty gritty of who owned what and how it worked, and who could be repatriated to, things just got very, very complicated very quickly.


Jennifer Berglund  13:33

You mentioned a particular object that was quite difficult to repatriate earlier, can you tell me the story of that? 


Phil Deloria  13:42

It was a headdress and it belonged to an identifiable individual, the individual seemed to have sold it to someone else, there was a bill of sale. So there was a trail of provenance on this item. And the museum said, look, you know, I mean, it's hard to say that this is cultural patrimony. For example, when a person owned it, we can identify that person, the person sold it, we have a bill of sale, which shows that the sale happened. And yet, you know, this is a quite important leader. And as his headdress, it's quite clear that you can imagine that it is cultural patrimony, right, it does matter to the people of that tribal nation, and it does matter to that family. And so, NAGPRA sort of pushes you to think of these things as private property individually owned, you know, that's the way the law kind of functions. Whereas your instinct is to say, this really does belong back with a tribe, right, And it is part of the cultural legacy there, and we should figure out a way to get it back to them. But we can't really do it through NAGPRA. And that issue continues to be very much part of the the dialogue in the present day, right. It's a problem that is not totally been solved. In the early years of NAGPRA, and in the years before NAGPRA, the contesting of this law that museums and archaeologists oftentimes said and were quite fearful, they say, well, you know, Indians are going to pull the semi truck up to the loading dock or institution, they're going to take everything from us. And so this was the fear that museums had. So this first consultation, it was that the Denver Art Museum, it was with Cheyenne River Tribe. The museum, after going through the inventory process, this was the consultation. The museum laid out several 100 items on a collection of tables in the basement. This is very museum-ish workspace. So several 100 items on a couple of tables, several tables, actually. And so the delegation from Cheyenne River came and spent the day. You know, for me, it was really quite affecting. They very carefully and very seriously and solemnly walked through these objects, they gathered around each one, they picked them up, and they talked about them. And they described them and they knew so much about these objects. It's one of the things that I think caught museum people by surprise was how much knowledge Native people had about their things. Museum would have a label saying, well, is this such and such with a question mark on it and collected by so and so maybe there's a lot of uncertainty, you know, around these kinds of things. And so folks in the museum were kind of frantically taking notes about what these things were in the conversations, you know, and at the end of the day, you know, I think they asked for three or four things to be, you know, considered for repatriation. And you could feel museum folks could do this kind of collective sigh of relief. But then I think they paused and did a little self reflection about what it had meant for them to be so paranoid about Native people, and so worried about what the partnership would look like, they didn't see it as a partnership. And I think maybe afterwards, it felt like it was more of a partnership. It's quite clear to me, the museum got much more value from the folks from Cheyenne River than they ever anticipated. I mean, they filled in so much information about the things that remained in the collection. And so it felt to me, it was an important experience for me. It was it was a little itchy, right, in the sense that, like, I felt like the museum was in some ways, you know, gaining an advantage or sort of taking advantage in some ways of the knowledge that these tribal people were willing to share. But it's not really an exchange kind of situation. It's not like it gave me this knowledge in relation to these objects which I'm going to ask to be returned. But I think those are the moments when museums could see that these things could be partnerships, you know, and they could be collaborations, and that they could have consequences for the future and that there could be something interesting and good that could come out of NAGPRA, for everybody who is concerned.


Jennifer Berglund  17:24

Do you think your perspective changed after that experience?


Phil Deloria  17:29

Yeah, I think what it really highlighted for me was something I had always known and I think, picked up from my dad, from my grandfather, is that, you know, these objects have power to them, you know, they retain a kind of aura, a sensibility. They're not just objects, right? They're objects that have meaning. And so I think what it really reinforced for me is that NAGPRA is for all of its legislative and bureaucratic and legalistic stuff, it is a profoundly spiritual kind of endeavor.


Jennifer Berglund  18:09

Here at Harvard, we have a massive collection of human remains of objects that are subject to NAGPRA. And, we have been a little slow to deal with them. When you came to Harvard, you came sort of being aware of those issues. And today, you're the chair of our NAGPRA committee, and we're so grateful to have you. First off, tell me a little bit about the origins of the NAGPRA committee at Harvard. And what are the big challenges you're dealing with right now?


Phil Deloria  18:44

Harvard went into NAGPRA in a very, very serious way. And I think it's worth you know,  for some of the liabilities that we have as part of our program, and they are real liabilities, I think Harvard did approach NAGPRA in that complicated first decade in a good faith way. The staff increases in the museum's were significant, there was a real effort to complete inventories. For 30 years, Harvard has had a lot of consultation. But part of this is because the scope and the scale of our collections is so huge, you know, our collections are across continental North America, they're global, of course, but about 10,000 Native American human remains in 1990, when NAGPRA first started, and we've repatriated something around 3400 of those, so there's kind of around 7000 or so remains, that are still part of the collection. And so there's a long, long way to go. You know, that said, our staff, particularly staff that I know that I've been since I've been here, you know, working incredibly hard and, and I think do a really good job of trying to implement NAGPRA and being sensitive to law, but also understanding the sort of moral ethical issues and so, but we've had a couple of moments right, where Harvard has had a few missteps and one of the main ones has been around associated funerary objects under these 2010 regulations. And the 2010 regulations, as I said, It before created a lot of complications, a lot of confusions. One of them was around this issue. So associated funerary objects are things which are buried with a human being, and which can be associated with that human being. In other words, an archaeologist digs up a human remain, and there are traveling goods, right, or burial objects that are with that person. And so they're all collected together. So those are associated funerary objects. There are associated to your objects, which may be, sort of, not linked to a particular individual. So what the 2010 regulations say is that associated funerary objects are recommended, but not required to be returned under a 2010 repatriation or disposition. You know, and so, I think this was a moment where Harvard worries perhaps quite rightly, about setting precedent for other kinds of institutions. You know, I think there was a bit of a legalistic reading of this and said, Okay, well, if it's not required, then it's not required. And if it's only recommended, we maybe ought to be on the cautious side. And so we did not return associated funerary objects with human remains. And we haven't had that many cases of this, but the cases we've had have been, I think, quite hurtful to the tribal nations that have been involved. And so the way  that I came to know about this is the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe has produced a graphic novel called Journeys to Complete the Work, which lays out the basics of repatriation is quite a useful teaching tool. I've used it in my classroom, many, many years.


Jennifer Berglund  21:26

Full disclosure, you're actually a character in it.


Phil Deloria  21:29

A minor character, you know, there's a, there's a, there's a graphic of, you know, one of these Michigan committees sort of, you know, standing, you know, in a big line and, and, and you can see me in there, and it's kind of fun, because I don't really look like myself. But one of the things that this graphic novel does around repatriations is it elevates Michigan and sort of sort of says, here's how you do it. And it sort of takes Harvard to task and says, here's how you don't do it. And so the contrast for me in particular in my own situatedness. You know, it's been quite striking. So, to get back to the question, as FAS was going about the process of looking for a new museum director, they do that thing where they send out letters and say, what do you see is the challenges of the museum? And what could a new director do to remedy those challenges? And so I was on campus, but we'd also hired other Native faculty, Shawon Kinew in art history, Joe Gone in anthropology, Tiya Miles, you know, who's worked a lot in Native kinds of issues. These were both my colleagues at Michigan, Joe and Tiya. So Harvard has raided Michigan in a pretty serious way, in this in this particular field. So you know, we all I'm not gonna say that we all wrote letters, I don't know that for a fact. But I'm pretty sure that we all wrote letters and said, this is something that you really must deal with. I actually, in my letter, excerpted pages of the graphic novel and inserted them into my letter saying like, this is something that that Peabody really needs to think about. And then the next director really needs to take on in a serious way. And so, when Jane Pickering became the director, the first thing she did was constituted a Peabody Faculty Executive Committee, kind of Advisory Committee, which Matt Liebmann chairs, and so I served on that committee and one of the very first things we talked about was NAGPRA, and it became really clear that there was so much work to be done around NAGPRA, that we really needed a separate committee. And so then, roughly a little over a year ago, our Dean Claudine Gay from Faculty of Arts and Sciences convened a NAGPRA committee and asked me to chair that one. So we've spent the last year thinking we went into the fall last year, fall 2020, thinking hard about this AFO, associated funerary objects, policy, and we did some investigation, and we figured out some ways that the museum might be more flexible on this. And the corporation kind of approved a new kind of set of policy possibilities in early February. And so that, to me, felt like quite a big win, you know, for the museum. Most institutions, including Harvard move kind of slow on these things. But this was a pretty quick kind of change. And, and we immediately went and notified tribes that we were involved with, in these 2020 repatriation or disposition kinds of consultations, and we went back to the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe and the Michigan Consortium, and the Choctaw Tribe, those were the two main groups, but we also talked to Wampanoag folks, Abenaki folks. So we immediately set about trying to remedy what I think had been a problem around these associated funerary objects.


Jennifer Berglund  24:23

What kind of work do you think Harvard and the Peabody have on the horizon? And what changes do you think will ultimately set us on the right path?


Phil Deloria  24:32

You know, I think our scale is so large that we're at a time of budgetary constraint. But the fact is, we could just use more people, more staff doing the good work of repatriating things. Our staff works really hard, but there's a human limit to capacity of how much you can and can't achieve. So that's a possibility I would like to think about in terms of the future. I think, going all the way back to those very first days of NAGPRA, this question about repatriating things which are clearly functioning as cultural patrimony for tribal people, but which really don't fit within a NAGPRA framework. I think we have to think more creatively about that. And that's a conversation that's being driven by the international context as well. So, you know, I know, for example, at Harvard, we're talking about as many people institutions are thinking about international kinds of repatriations and returns. Maori folks have been pushing hard in a global context right for repatriation of human remains, we need to think a bit about that. At the Smithsonian National Museum of American Indian, we've been recently moving to international kinds of repatriations. So that context is creating challenges and possibilities for museums to think about things that are not just NAGPRA, but outside of NAGPRA, and we've had a couple of cases this year that have come up that have really raised those questions. So I think that's one of the things we'll be thinking a lot about in the future. We need to think a bit more about sort of what research policy looks like. I mean, this has always been defined as a research collection. If you imagine that the unidentifiable category has been kind of a holding tank, a category that might include things that would be returned to tribes. Is it right then to say that it's open season on we're doing research on all of those kinds of remains? You know, it might not be? And so that's a really vexing question that the Peabody Executive Committee has taken up. But we've also talked a lot you know, about as well. So I've sometimes said NAGPRA is like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, you paint it, and when you get to the other side, you turn around and you'd go back and paint it again. You know, at Michigan, our Budget Dean, at one point said to me, Well, you know, I'm trying to budget these extra staff, and how long do you think this will take five years or so? And I just said, no. NAGPRA has created an ongoing set of challenges and relationships and things to be solved. And it's not the kind of thing that you can put a five year timeline on, you have to plan for it being a much longer kind of thing. And in my view, something that extends into the indefinite future, because it is about establishing relationships or setting the groundwork for establishing relationships with tribal nations. And I think that's a really important thing for institutions to do for Harvard to have relationships with federally recognized tribes, the state tribes, and in Massachusetts, our local tribes. These are things that institutions of higher education need to be thinking much more about, and NAGPRA is, in some ways, kind of the very first beginning point.


Jennifer Berglund  27:21

Thinking about your career, and your stint painting your Golden Gate Bridge at Harvard, what do you hope to accomplish?


Phil Deloria  27:31

You know, Harvard is Harvard, it's a world leader. It's a world class University, it's arguably the world class University. If Harvard can do things and make progress on things and be a leader in things so much the better, right, the world will be a better place when Harvard is doing things well. And I think Harvard has, in this space, worked hard to try to get things right, made mistakes, not always been perfect. But if we can imagine sort of jumping forward, you know, around NAGPRA, around Native American studies, around tribal relationships, these kinds of things. If Harvard is doing these things, then other places look to Harvard. And they look to us as leaders and role models. And so it's good for us to try to figure out ways to be out ahead. Sometimes it seems to me that Harvard is sort of crawling its way out of 19th century or maybe the 18th century or even the 17th century. But that's a little unfair, right? I think Harvard is really pretty well positioned to do good work in this space, and that Harvard doing it and doing it at Harvard will make a difference. So that's my hope. My hope is that we will see some fabulous Native American graduate students passing through our programs, which we already are seeing. That we will have a really state of the art NAGPRA program that we will do some innovations in the space that sort of outside of NAGPRA are adjacent to NAGPRA. That we will move forward and make progress on those 7000 remaining human remains. If we said 10 years from now and thought that we had made progress in each of those areas, I think that would really be a significant thing. And so that's where I'm putting my time and my energy here at Harvard, and we'll continue to do so.


Jennifer Berglund  29:08

Phil Deloria, thank you so much for being here. This has been wonderful!


Phil Deloria  29:12

It has been my great pleasure. Thank you so much for the conversation.


Jennifer Berglund  29:22

Today's HMSC Connects! podcast was produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to Phil Deloria for his wisdom and expertise. And thank you so much for listening. If you liked today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Pod Bean, or wherever you get your podcasts. See you in a couple of weeks!