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Massachusetts Museum Returns Sacred Objects to Sioux Tribes

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BARRE, Massachusetts – About 150 artifacts considered sacred by the Lakota Sioux peoples are being returned to them after being kept in a small Massachusetts museum for more than a century.

Members of the Oglala Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes traveled from South Dakota to take custody of the weapons, pipes, moccasins and clothing, including several items believed to have a direct link to the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota .

They were in the possession of the Founders Museum in Barre, Massachusetts, about 75 miles west of Boston. A public ceremony was held on Saturday at the gym of a nearby elementary school with prayers from the Lakota representatives. The artifacts are officially handed over during a private ceremony.

“Since that Wounded Knee massacre, genocides have dripped into our blood,” said Surrounded Bear, 20, who traveled to Barre from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. according to The Boston Globe. “And for us to bring these artifacts back is a step toward healing. That is a step in the right direction.”

The ceremony marked the culmination of repatriation efforts that were decades in the making.

Leola One Feather, right, of the Oglala Sioux tribe in South Dakota on July 19, 2022, at the Founders Museum in Barre, Massachusetts.Phil Marcelo / AP file

“It was always important to me to give them back,” said Ann Meilus, chairman of the board of directors of the Founders Museum. “I think the museum will be remembered because it’s on the right side of history to return these items.”

The items being returned are just a small fraction of the estimated 870,000 Native American artifacts — including nearly 110,000 human remains — held by the nation’s most prestigious colleges, museums and even the federal government. They would be returned to the tribes under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.

Museum officials have said that as a private institution that does not receive federal funding, the institution is not subject to NAGPRA, but it is the right choice to return items in the collection that belong to indigenous tribes.

More than 200 men, women, children, and the elderly were killed in the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Congress, a century later, formally apologized to the Sioux Nation for one of the worst massacres of Native Americans in the country.

The Barre Museum acquired its native collection from Frank Root, a traveling shoe salesman who collected the items on his travels in the 1800s, and, according to museum officials, once had a roadshow that rivaled PT Barnum’s extravaganzas.

Wendell Yellow Bull, a descendant of Wounded Knee victim Joseph Horn Cloud, has said the items will be stored at Oglala Lakota College until tribal leaders decide what to do with them.

The items returned to the Sioux people have all been verified by multiple experts, including tribal experts. The museum also has other native artifacts not believed to have come from the Sioux.

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