National Treasures

Enlivening exhibits of Native American art at the Peabody

In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) required that federally-funded institutions like the Peabody initiate dialogues with federally recognized tribes about the artifacts in museums. The Peabody’s collection of Native American artifacts is one of the largest in the nation subject to NAGPRA’s regulations, according to Repatriation Coordinator Patricia A. Capone, who is an associate curator at the Peabody and an anthropology lecturer. Capone describes NAGPRA as a catalyst for productive discussion between tribes and museums.

For example, the Peabody’s recent Archeology of Harvard Yard Exhibit drew together students, administrators, and tribal leaders in an effort to promote a concerted dialogue about the artifacts and their presentations in the museum, according to Capone.

The Peabody and the tribes can forge strong relationships when tribes exercise their rights as outlined in the act. For example, the federally-recognized Cape Fox Corporation—which legally represents various Alaskan Native American tribes—deemed one totem pole in the Peabody collection an object of cultural patrimony. The totem pole, which told a story of the Alaskan bear clan, was repatriated in 2001.

But the conversations between the Peabody and the relevant tribes are not always defined by peaceful unanimity. “There are times that not everyone agrees,” Capone says.

“However, among these Alaskan tribes, reciprocity is highly practiced,” Capone says. The tribe that reclaimed the totem pole gave the museum a cedar tree, and the museum in turn commissioned Nathan Jackson, an artist from that community, to carve the tree into a different totem pole.


The new totem pole tells the same story of the repatriated art piece: the story of the Fox, the Hunter, and the Brown Bear. The new pole is a recent creation and thus bolsters the museum’s collection of contemporary Native American art—a collection which grew during the Peabody’s recent REMIX exhibit, which explored indigenous identity in the 21st century.


The REMIX exhibit was the result of a collaboration of Native American students and Peabody administrators looking to express the modern-day identity of Native American culture. Two pieces from the exhibit still remain in the gallery. One, a painting done by Bunky Echo-Hawk, replaced a 16th century photograph of a Native American that once hung outside of the “Change and Continuity” exhibit, according to Kelsey T. Leonard ’10, co-curator of the original REMIX exhibit and a member of Native Americans at Harvard College (NAHC). Leonard also noted the importance of including contemporary art in an exhibit about the continuity of the Native American culture.

The other piece that remains is a mural by Native American graphic artist Ryan Red Corn. The piece, entitled “Vandalism,” depicts Mount Rushmore, a sacred site for the Lakota tribe. The Lakota people held the land by treaty when the U.S. decided to carve Mount Rushmore into a sculpture of four American presidents.

As Red Corn worked on this piece symbolizing the disregard for the Lakota people’s treaty, a young boy walking by asked his father if Native Americans still exist. Red Corn listened as the father told his son “no,” according to Leonard. This anecdote is just one example of the “invisibility that is often felt by native youths,” Leonard said.

“We embrace our past and we embrace our present,” she added. “But we are looking towards our future.”

—Staff writer Gautam S. Kumar can be reached at

—Staff writer Julia L. Ryan can be reached at