The damage is permanent. Now what are we going to do ?

Jimmy W. Arterberry and Annette Arkeketa (visuals)

While activists’ pressures urging museums in Europe to restitute their collections have recently led to scarce cases of restitution of artifacts and human remains mainly to African countries, experiences from contexts with internal colonization, where repatriation legislation has existed for decades are surprisingly rarely taken into account. In the USA, thousands of repatriations occurred in the frame of the Native American Grave Protection Act (NAGPRA), a federal law that has been adopted in 1990.

The Congress did not address the treatment of cultural items with potentially hazardous substances when it enacted NAGPRA in 1990. Similarly, the Department of the Interior did not address this matter when the act implementing NAGPRA was proposed in 1993. Only in 1995, when it promulgated the final rule, the Department of the Interior required disclosure of any known treatments, and then, only at the repatriation stage of the NAGPRA compliance process. The following provision was included as the result of a recommendation made by one commenter during the comment period that followed publication of the proposed rule:

“The museum official or Federal agency official must inform the recipients of repatriations of any presently known treatment of the human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony with pesticides, preservatives, or other substances that represent a potential hazard to the objects or to persons handling the objects.1

In this interview, the former Comanche Nation Tribal Administrator (2015-2019) and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Comanche Nation (between 1999 to 2015) Jimmy W. Arterberry, revisits his experiences with repatriations in the frame of the law. He draws on his ample knowledge and experiences in historic preservation policies, law implementation, education, and government-to-government consultation, and specifically focuses on the transformations of cultural and religious items through conservation and biocide treatment in federal museums.

Jimmy Arterberry in discussion with museum staff Deborah Confer over two pairs of Comanche men’s leggings,
at the University of Colorado Museum, Boulder, Colorado, 2003. 
Annette Arkeketa: Muh-duu’ Kee: Put Them Back, Hokte Productions 2004, Filmstill.

Lotte Arndt: Jimmy, could you introduce the work that you conducted on repatriation as the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Comanche Nation?

Jimmy Arterberry: I am a museum professional, my background is in museum administration, I received my bachelor in American Indian Studies (2001) from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, followed by a M.A. in Museum Administration (2009) from the University of Oklahoma. But I am also working as an artist, and I hold a degree in two-dimensional Art (1994) and another in Museum Studies (1994) from the Institute of American Indian and Alaskan Natives Arts.

In the frame of Native American Grave Protection Act (NAGPRA, 1990) many tribes have developed cultural resource programs. My original role with the Comanche tribe came twenty years ago in the form of a consultant, to do a cultural property survey, which led me into NAGPRA and historic preservation in a broader sense.

I was appointed in 1999 and reaffirmed in 2004 officially through my tribe, the Comanche, to represent the nation on matters of repatriation. I worked independently, but I pulled from the community elders, traditional religious leaders and cultural specialists, to participate as I moved forward with my research with the cultural material. I did fieldwork, I traveled a lot in the aim to establish inventories of our belongings, reconstruct history and sketch plans for repatriation. We looked at a lot of material culture falling in line with NAGPRA: Funeral and burial sacred items, but the main focus was on human remains. Our work was about bringing the people home, taking them back to their original locations and bury them.

Dealing with the legal frame is far from easy. A lot of things are sacred but they are not included in what the law defines as repatriable. For repatriation to occur, the items have to comply with the terms of the law. Some of the matter that we hold sacred cannot be repatriated because there is no direct proof of theft or violence: the way the items were taken matters in the request for the return. There are cases of tribal members who gave the material to the museum, in order to ensure that the item would not be in the possession of another tribal member. But this does not mean that these items are not held very sacred to that individual. They are personal in nature and they shouldn’t be on display in a museum.

LA: What was the museums’ attitude towards your visits and requests? Did they support the work of the tribes?

JA: At that time, the museums had already submitted inventories with information on the collections. So it was up to the tribes to look through these inventories, to travel to the institutions, and have a look at the matter itself. The museum professionals were there to facilitate our access and exchange with us about what we considered should be repatriated.

I personally think that a lot of these things shouldn’t be in museums. They should have been gone for a long time. As an artist I am often in the situation that somebody asks for a pair of moccasins for the pending passing of a person – those things are meant to go under the earth during the burial, they belong to the person, they are not meant to be seen, and put in a showcase. They are very personal items. Now it is the burden of the tribes to have to care for them. What shall we do with them now? They never should have been in the museums. Do we take them back and carry the financial and social responsibility for them? Some of the items should clearly be returned to the communities, be utilized, and used to learn from, and honor tradition.

But most things that have been repatriated are associated to individuals. There is no religious use beyond that connection. They are not sacred in daily life, only in some moments of a persons’ journey. For each culture and each object, the situation is different, and has to be carefully considered.

LA: Can you give us an idea of the number of repatriations that you accompanied over the duration of your work on repatriation?

JA: I have spent about twenty years traveling and looking at material. Often we went through photo archives, but without seeing the items physically, because they do not fall into the category of repatriable heritage. For example, I was talking to the NAGPRA manager recently about eagle bone whistles and eagle feather fans. Some people think all this shall come back to the tribe. But history is complex. During the reservation period, not all of these items were confiscated; the individual tribal members gave some to the neighbors, or they were handed over by gift, not by theft because people knew that the items would be taken care for. To me, they are all sacred no matter where they came from. But in the context of the NAGPRA law you cannot repatriate them. Also you can ask what would you actually do with thousands of these objects. You have to use some common sense. I think it is important that they are available for people to understand our history, also in the context of American history. They can be used for educational purposes. There is a history of life before colonization, our traditions have been here, and we need to hand down information to prepare the next generation to understand how we got here to avoid that these violent things repeat.

 Jimmy Arterberry and Theodore Villicana during the ground penetrating radar survey for unmarked graves,
Deyo Mission Cemetery, Comanche County, Oklahoma, 2003. 
Annette Arkeketa: Muh-duu’ Kee: Put Them Back, Hokte Productions 2004, Filmstill.

LA: When did you start to realize that there was a problem with intoxicated collections?

JA: Through my studies in the field of museums, especially at the Institute of American Indian Arts, I had an idea about the use of chemicals and pesticides. But the extent of the treatment was not clear to me, and it was never fully disclosed until late in the process.

For more than 20 years, we traveled across the country to bring home human remains for reburial. I took a group of Comanche Elders to New York and Washington DC, and we went to the George Gustav Heye collection at the Smithsonian Institution, in the Bronx, and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC. This was around 2002-2004. During that window of time, nobody told us not to touch any item, and to be cautious because they can be toxic.

I realized that there was a problem years after having started the visits in the museum collections. I have a habit to touch my face, to take a sip of coffee, when talking or being in my thoughts while visiting the storages. Nobody told us “Don’t touch anything. If you do, wear gloves. Wash your hands, don’t touch your face.” At some point, I started to have symptoms, like an allergy – a red nose, irritated skin… And I realized only later that there may be a link between the treated objects and these symptoms.

From the time I began working with the tribe on NAGPRA matters and engaging professionals while implementing the law, and until I was fully aware of the potential toxicity of the various collections approximately 5 years passed. From this point forward any work related to the handling of or viewing of material collections I would ensure that everybody was using personal protective equipment. When I became aware of what I was doing, I started to tell people: “Do not touch anything!”

LA: Did the museums react on your symptoms caused by the toxic treatments?

JA: I never took it to that level. I changed the way I approached things on my personal level, and with the elders, whom I asked to wear masks and gloves. I became a kind of guardian, in order to protect them, and it worked. I felt responsible for them. I wanted to make sure that they are safe. But I never told the museums that I had been sick from touching the objects.

LA: Have you experienced that toxicity has been used as an argument to refuse repatriations?

JA: Probably this happens but it did not happen to us. Our goal during the visits was to see what the museums have. If they would have told us that these things are too toxic to see them, we would have considered that a provocation. We would have probably replied, “We can wear a mask!” These items are related to us, you cannot hold back from us what you have taken from us. There would have been a cultural challenge. In every step there are these challenges. You have to stand for your positions!

LA: How do the Nations deal with the risk of toxicity?

JA: This is a complex question. Items have to be scientifically tested one by one to see what contaminants and pollutants are contained in it. Most museums didn’t keep a record of the treatments in general, even less for individual items. Testing is not only a costly and time-consuming process. Tribes were also firmly opposed to the idea of any kind of invasive methods on religious materials, whether it was taking tiny bits of DNA or other biological methods. They considered testing as invasive to the cultural and religious dimension of these materials. The tribes were protective about the materials, with very good reasons. But ironically, in this case, they were not informed that the testing could protect us.

It is a dilemma: From a cultural perspective any testing conducted on these materials is problematic. For us to touch somebody’s personal religious item is very invasive. But if you don’t test the items you don’t know if they hold a risk. It takes a generation to change the attitudes towards this question. My elders didn’t want to talk about contamination and repatriation because they assumed that none of these objects should be in museums, and as a consequence, contamination should never have happened. They would have said, let it go; they wouldn’t argue about things. Only slowly over time they started to recognize that we do need to talk about it. It is like a family secret about something traumatic that happened. Everybody deals with it, but don’t talks about it. But we know that talking heals.

Now, through the process, we have slowly changed and are more open to testing. Not about verifications of any kind on the behalf of cultural practices: We know what we believe! We don’t need science to tell us. In this realm, material testing is invading our space of cultural practice and sacredness. But in the case of testing for toxicity, not our cultural beliefs are at stake, but our safety. We want to know whether touching an item is safe for the members of the community. Now, we do not touch anything unless we know it is safe.

On Arkansas River in Colorado, Bureau of Land Management, Burial site on federal property.
While the federal agency refused the status of a protected site, Jimmy Arterberry
and his colleagues could negotiate a signage identifying the place as a burial site. 
Annette Arkeketa: Muh-duu’ Kee: Put Them Back, Hokte Productions 2004, Filmstill.

LA: Your description clearly shows that the difficult question that raises the testing of objects for toxicity is more broadly related to the invasive character of keeping them at the museums. The chemical dimension would thus be only one aspect of the toxic consequences of the museum conservation?

JA: Let me tell you a story. Let’s say my grandfather was a great religious leader, who passed his knowledge to me, to carry on the tradition. He granted me the knowledge and the practice, in a very serious, ceremonial way, not to pass it around. If this knowledge and matter gets passed around, with people touching and looking at it, you can consider this a form of a rape: We are speaking about items that have been stolen or taken against your will, that are intimately related to our sacred being, and any kind of manipulation is very invasive. We don’t want to touch these items, we do not want them to be touched, and we do not need to do so. But unfortunately not everybody holds that to be true, even today. The lack of knowledge is still enormous. More education on the subject should be given. We need people to understand our cultural situation, and respect our history.

LA: There is a broad discussion about repairing through repatriations going on these days. Do you see that museums recognize their violent history and adapt their practices?

JA: When I went on June 4, 2002 to Washington DC to testify at the hearing before the Committee on Indian Affairs of the United States Senate2, my aunt told me to make clear in my speech that the settler society has forever changed our traditions that can never be replaced or repaired. It has forever changed our cultures! The damage is permanent, now the question is where do we go from here. We are forced to change, this cannot fix the damage done: We have to learn how to deal with this.

If our ancestors had not accepted changes, even painful, we wouldn’t be here today. The current situation has evolved. It is crucial that change comes from the community itself, it cannot be imposed. Fortunately, our people are better understanding these matters today and attempting to address such issues.

LA: Did you experience situations in which communities didn’t want to take back items?

JA: Yes. In situations that would burden too heavily their communities, many tribal leaders decide to leave remains and cultural material at the museum. At the time when I was working on repatriation, we were concentrated on human remains. The person in charge now for NAGPRA for the Comanche tribe at present told me that repatriated items are transferred to our tribal museum. This raises difficult questions, as they cannot be on display there, neither. We cannot apply double standards. They shouldn’t be shown at all, not even at our own museums. Shall we keep them in archives? Or rebury them? My opinion is that they should be reburied. But this is complex too, as people know the burial places, and there is a risk that they are going to dig them up again. Some of the buried remains are resurfacing which is very disturbing. If a chemical treatment touches a ceremonial item, it creates an additional burden and a risk for the tribe.

We can address Washington and remind the federal government of its responsibility to carry the burden of care for the items. Every tribe has to decide if they want to get things back or prefer that they stay at the museums. I think that some of the items that should be with us but do not qualify for repatriation under NAGPRA, should be kept in the archives, and all of our people should have the right to permanent access, to learn from the item, educate with it, be in touch. But the financial burden should be federal. We are citizens not only of our Tribal Nation, but also of the US; we pay taxes like everybody else, this is a federal government’s responsibility. These decisions are far from simple: Every tribe has a different position on this. These complex issues will be here long after we are gone; this is here forever.

LA: Do tribes always carry claims individually, or do you establish alliances and collaborations?

JA: Yes, many claims are carried collaboratively. In the South West, human remains often integrated the museums in the same time frame. Most tribes are opposed to DNA testing. So we form alliances and organize what we call inner-tribal repatriation. Collectively with approximately twenty nations, we request the remains that are repatriable under NAGPRA. Sometimes a tribe takes the lead, and we support that claim, because we know they will bring the remains back. Sometimes we do not know if these people belong to a specific tribe because of the lack of information, but we know they are native. We want these people to be put back! To us this is not about ownership, if they came from our territories, then we work together to respect and honor the past. We come together and want to respect the dead and put them down.

When it comes to Comanche material, I would only hand in a claim if I am sure about the case. I will take the lead when we can make a fact-based claim. Otherwise we work with other tribes and let them take the lead. We are individual autonomous nations, even if we have sister tribes. Each tribal entity has to figure out what fits to their process. Obviously, not all tribes have the same position on this.

Emerson Niyah (Jimmy Arterberry’s grandfather) and Fred Ticeahkie (Comanche) at Elm Springs,
Camp Meeting early 1900’s, Oklahoma.
Annette Arkeketa: Muh-duu’ Kee: Put Them Back, Hokte Productions 2004, Filmstill.

LA: Are there any turning points that you can identify in the way museums dealt with repatriation claims?

JA: In my personal history, the consultation at the University of Colorado Boulder was a tough process. It was one of the institutions that resisted very strongly the claim. They didn’t want to let the remains go. It took close to a decade to achieve the repatriation. The question of ownership and toxicity became important at that moment for me.

During that time, my Otoe-sister Annette Arkeketa (of the Otoe-Missouria tribe of Oklahoma) made a film called: “Muh-Du Kee: Put Them Back” (2004, app. 60 min), a documentary that follows me through the consultation process with Colorado state and federal institutions to repatriate the remains of Comanche people. This documentary expresses my views of grave protection and repatriation in the frame of NAGPRA, brings in the views of archaeologists, discussed different policies, and possible solutions. It was back then, in Colorado that I realized that my sickly feelings are related to the materials that were treated for preservation.

LA: You are also exercising as an artist. Could you tell me a bit more about this work?

JA: I do traditional artwork and contemporary art, reaching from baby moccasins to oil paintings, leather work, woodwork…. I have a few pieces in collections around the globe. But this is not my career; I don’t make art to sell for a living. I produce art for personal and community preservation as well as for the continuation of cultural tradition. My art is about personal preservation of cultural activities; it is about transmission between generations, the continuum of our cultural practices. I am interested in telling my story in the form of art so that future generations can inherit this.

The interview was conducted on 26 March 2021. Many thanks to Jimmy Arterberry, and to Jacquetta Swift, Repatriation Manager at the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian and Siska Genbrugge, AfricaMuseum, Tervuren, for their generous insights and for establishing the contact.


1 Native American Grave Protection Act, Subpart C, §10.10 Repatriation,

2 The hearing took place during the 107th Congress, in the second section that was dedicated to the protection of Native American sacred places as they are affected by the department of defense undertakings.

Jimmy Arterberry is the former Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Comanche Nation and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act representative (1999 – 2015) and the Comanche Nation Tribal Administrator (2015 – 2019). He is an enrolled member of the Comanche Nation, and is recognized as a Native American leader, scholar and educator whose commitment to historic preservation is nationally known. In 1999, Mr. Arterberry began his career in historic preservation as a consultant for the Comanche Nation, performing a Traditional Cultural Property Survey on Fort Sill Military Installation, Oklahoma. Subsequently he was hired as the Environmental Programs Director. He reviewed and monitored environmental projects in accordance with all applicable federal, state, county and city environmental codes and ordinances. Mr. Arterberry also provided technical oversight and direction of the Underground Storage Tank program (UST) responding to spills of hazardous waste or materials; reviewed proper clean-up and disposal procedures at sites located on federal trust and tribally owned lands for hazardous, toxic, solid waste and pollution abatement, and enforced regulatory notification procedures. In 2004, Mr. Arterberry became the executive-delegated point-of-contact for consultation with state agencies and “government-to-government” consultation with federal agencies, aiding in the development of various agreements regarding the treatment of cultural resources. Mr. Arterberry’s nomination of the Comanche Indian Mission Cemetery, Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to the National Register of Historic Places was officially listed in 2013.

Annette Arkeketa is a member of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Oklahoma and is also Muscogee Creek. She is an independent documentary filmmaker and owner of Hokte Productions. Hokte Productions is the creator of documentaries that feature indigenous leaders, artists, tribal communities, social activism and popular culture.