For the last several years my alma mater, Andover Newton, has been wrestling with the issue of repatriation of the significant collection Native American Artifacts it has accumulated over the last two hundred (or so) years. The process has been heavily criticized by many because it has been extremely slow, with little apparent progress to outside observers.
And yet, as my fellow alumnus, friend (and awesome minister) Rev. Virginia Child pointed out recently: the reality is that the effort to restore even a single artifact to its rightful present day caretakers is a far more challenging and convoluted process than it would seem. While we usually know where an artifact came from and who originally gave it to the school, identifying who should be the caretaker can be quite a challenge, as this article about a controversy over the repatriation of the remains of an ancient Wampanoag leader demonstrates.
So, while it is frustratingly slow, Andover Newton’s determination to be careful and sensitive in the repatriation of each of these artifacts is to its credit. It would be much easier to simply hand them to the first group that shows up with something resembling a valid claim. But, such an approach would only continue and aggravate the long ago injustices that created the present situation.
This same type of controversy is an often intractable aspect of far larger conflicts we see in so many places: Israel/Palestine; the Progressive/Conservative battles in the US and elsewhere; the tensions between China and many of its neighbors; North Korea; Black Lives Matter; the controversies in many of our Southern states right now over flying the Confederate flag and the placement of statues and memorials venerating Confederate heroes and events; and the representations of Native Americans in sports team names and logos. In each case, tensions focus on questions of “Who owns our past?” And, “Who has control over the narrative of what our past means?”
The past is the framework upon which our present is built. In dealing with items of significance in the pasts of others – artifacts, language or terminology, land, memories, stories, customs, …, we must take care. Because, in appropriating the past of another (such as claiming that it is not theirs to control, using it for our own purposes/ amusement, or redefining its meaning on our terms) we are often stealing or destroying their future.
Copyright (c) 2017, Allen Vander Meulen III.
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