How I Found Myself in Barre

I have regularly visited and worked on the Pine Ridge Reservation throughout the last thirty years, home of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and on the Navajo Nation in Arizona. The more I learn, the more I am troubled by the injustices experienced by the indigenous tribes living in their traditional homelands. These inequalities are often a result of accumulative historical, cultural, and economic practices converging from the overbearing society around them.

In Barre, MA, a small New England town, sits the Woods Memorial Library. The Library Association was founded in 1885, and the building was built with the support of Barry Woods on land he also donated for a town library in 1887. Tucked away on the 3rd floor sits the Barre Museum Association and its holdings of local collections. As someone who appreciates acknowledging history and honoring our predecessors, I typically am grateful to see small-town museums. At first sight, this one became more emotionally and ethically questionable than almost any I have ever witnessed.

I grew up an American living in the Connecticut suburbs. I had a relative sense of privilege from a lower-middle-class white and culturally Jewish background, living in a predominantly white Christian neighborhood. Not that I chose this privilege or was even conscious of living with it as a child. My mother made every effort to instill in my sisters and me a belief in always being fair to others. I was raised with the American Melting Pot concept taught to us in school. I felt out of place for not being religious or knowing my cultural heritage. I often asked my grandparents about our family’s history, traditions, and culture. If I got any, the response was always from my grandfather, Nathan, who proclaimed, “Your American now; that’s all that matters.” Having fled persecution in eastern Europe when they were young, my grandparents’ memories were ones they were unwilling to share. I did not realize how much of a loss this felt until 1992, when I met Eugene Reddest Comes Out First and his family. He was the first Oglala Lakota tribal member I had met and who lived on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The more time I spent with Eugene, his family, and his tribe, the more I began to cherish and want to honor the sense of family, tradition, and cultural heritage these indigenous people held. Practices I could not recognize within my own family’s legacy.

Over the years, I have taught youth programming across the reservation. These included one collaboration with respected Lakota teachers Leonard Little Finger and Glorianna Under Baggage. The three of us collaborated on a project funded by the Open Society Institute, providing youth in three schools and non-profits with equipment and lessons to help them tell their own stories. Years later, I co-led an Exposures Cross-Cultural Youth Arts group, and we visited Leonard in his home. Leonard’s eyes welled up almost in tears when he heard one of our facilitators had grown up near Barre, MA. He then spoke to us of the Museum Association’s collection of Native American artifacts reportedly stolen from the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre site on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Afterward, the thief created a traveling show and charged people a fee to see items from the Native Americans killed at Wounded Knee. This collection was sitting in the Barre Museum Association, where they pridefully spoke of their role as historical caretakers. Leonard told the story of his grandfather, or great-grandfather (I cannot recall which), being at Wounded Knee when he was a young boy. The horrific stories he grew up hearing of the massacre haunted Leonard even more deeply when he learned of the stolen and sacred items sitting in Barre. Leonard requested, almost pleaded with the group to help to get the items returned or, at the very least, get photographs of them. (In 1993) he traveled across the country with Richard Broken Nose, Alex White Plume, and others to see the exhibition and tried to negotiate the repatriation. He did so with conviction, as others had been attempting to convey to the Museum Association Board that the items had to be returned to help release the massacred victim’s spirits which were tortured by the horrible massacre.

Lakota and other tribal people have tried to get the artifacts repatriated for decades. The museum, which is seldom open, said its policy prohibited photography, yet they needed an accurate collection catalog. I’d been repeatedly told by board members that they wanted to see the policy changed but felt helpless as the by-laws stated that the policy could only be modified by a unanimous vote of all board members, and some board members were unsupportive of returning the items or even cataloging what was in the collection to share with the tribes.

These ancestral items were locked in a large room where they had sat in rows of glass cases for almost 130 years. There were sacred items like medicine bags, Cannupas, traditional sacred prayer pipes, a ghost shirt, and much more, including human remains. I was told there were close to two hundred items. I’d never counted. The cases were so full that doing so would have been very difficult, and again, there was no catalog. The museum was reluctant to return the items, proclaiming they feared the tribe would burn or bury them to release the ancestor’s spirits —acts contrary to its mission as stated on the museum website when they still had one: “We will act as stewards as we aspire to preserve, protect and propagate the cultural heritage of our community.” However, the Native people believed the items should rightfully and foremost be returned. The tribes might choose tofree the spirits from the massacre through a ceremony, especially any with human remains. Who should decide the correct outcome? Doesn’t it make sense that descendants of the survivors and massacre victims determine the outcome?

Around the summer of 2017, I arranged to take a diverse group to see the collection. They were participants in that summer’s Exposures Cross-Cultural Youth Arts Program. We had representation from 8 states and three tribes from diverse backgrounds. The program aimed to inspire genuine appreciation for cultural diversity rather than merely tolerate it while studying photography and storytelling. We were able to schedule a special viewing of the collection. Museum Association Board members watched over us as the youth entered the cloistered room to see the exhibition.

As the group looked at the believed to be stolen artifacts, including many sacred and ceremonial items, everyone could feel the sadness and tension in the room rise. Darien and Lane, Young Man Afraid of His Horses, a Lakota brother and sister from the Pine Ridge Reservation, had trouble hiding their emotions. They found a labeled photograph hanging in the collection of their great-great-grandfather Chief Young Man Afraid of His Horses. After everyone had seen the glass-case enclosed items, as the board members had agreed, we went to the next room to hold a circle conversation about the collection’s existence, implications, and significance. The discussion began with a board member proudly attempting to justify their work to preserve history for their small New England town and elsewhere. The room included collections of various items locals had collected at that point over 120 years prior. There were collections of rocks, birds’ eggs, taxidermy, and more, in addition to the Lakota and other tribe’s items believed to have come from Wounded Knee. After the board member addressed the group with pride, speaking of their dedication to being keepers of local history, I suggested letting Lakota youth speak next.

Darien and Lane looked at each other and agreed that Darien would begin. She rose and quietly walked over to the Board member who had started the presentation. Darien offered a gesture to shake hands and proceeded to speakcalmly and respectfully. She said she heard a small voice in her ear, that of her mother, reminding her to thank the woman and other board members for taking care of these items for her tribe and relations. When Darien thanked her in a heartfelt way, the air in the room lightened as everyone felt emotional tension dissipate.

Then a few quiet moments later, with Darien standing straight and tall in front of the sitting board member, she began to speak again, acknowledging she heard a voice in her other ear. This, too, she said, was her mother speaking and wanting to know how the board members would feel if Darien’s people went to the graves of their family members, especially if they had been murdered, unarmed in a massacre, only to dig them up and steal items from the deceased. How would their families feel if Lakota people took these stolen items back to their homelands, put them in glass cases in a building they said was a historical museum, and kept them, only opening them up a few hours a year supposedly to respect history?She asked whether they would feel Lakota people could justify such action and rationalization. Everyone could feel the pain as she spoke, especially as Darien acknowledged her great-great grandfather’s image in the collection and all the other ancestors. Darien asked again, how would you feel? At that moment, Lane tapped on the shoulder of his younger sister and respectfully let her know she had made her point and reminded her to let others have time to speak too. The conversation went on. There was no doubt from any Exposures Program participant that Darien had expressed what everyone felt. The items did not belong where they were and were not helping tell any worthwhile historical story by their presence in this locked space.

I’ve spent so much time wondering, as Darien expressed that day, how I would feel if anyone felt justified to come and steal remnants of my family’s personal lives from their graves and keep them locked away in glass cases only to open them a few hours at a time, a few days a year to be viewed “for the sake of history.” And to top it all off, how extreme that would be if my family had unsuccessfully spent decades requesting the items be returned to help those whose relations had been killed or missing. Many Lakota people believing in their spiritual practices reaffirm that many of these items must be burned or buried ceremonially to help the tormented massacred spirits be released. And that it is for their people and their people alone to determine, even if historians want to preserve the historical story the items might tell. The tribe had offered in 1993 that traditional artisans could make replicas the museum could exhibit or at least start by photographing the collection. The Museum Association barely opened the collection to the public or used the items for educational purposes. They had not taken care of them with proper environmental controls other than a ceiling fannor created a catalog with photographs to help preserve them as a historical institution traditionally would so that families of the massacre’s survivors could see what the holdings included from their family’s ancestors. The Museum Association had flatly rejected such propositions. They continually stalled on acting upon them, repeatedly saying this could only happen if their board members agreed to vote unanimously. This justification has been cited for over three decades.

As for many others in similar situations, my experience with Barre Museum Association baffled me. How can anyone feel we know or have the right to determine the appropriate way for another cultural group to honor their ancestors and history? I struggled to help convince the Barre Museum Association and others like them to understand that only descendants of the Wounded Knee Massacre should determine what is to be done with items like these objects, which for so long have been believed to have been stolen off the victim’s bodies by gravediggers hired by the government. This process may not have been easy. Still, it is for the Lakota tribes to determine rightfully.

Thankfully, since drafting this writing months ago, things have shifted in a favorable direction with the Barre Museum Board members. With the inspired leadership of Board member Maureen Marshall, the board decided it was time to move forward and do their best to contribute to making historical wrongs be acknowledged and corrected. This past summer, we had the opportunity to honor Leonard Little Finger’s request and photograph the collection creating a visual catalog. The work was overseen by Jeffrey Not Help Him and Leola One Feather, Aaron Miller, who had been hired to assist the Museum with the repatriation, the Barre Board members, and Mia Ferole to,, acting on behalf of the tribe regarding the repatriation. I also had photographic assistance from Josiah Gill, a recent Rhode Island School of Design graduate. The resulting images were shared with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Oglala Lakota Tribe, and the Survivors of Descendants Associations from both reservations.

Soon after, the Barre Board signed an agreement to return the Lakota ancestor’s items. Lakota representatives from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe, and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe came to Barre, MA, to accept the return of their relative’s items. There were close to 300 people present for the return, and they ceremonially acknowledged the event. Residents, activists, and representatives of regional tribes, including the Nipmuc, Wampanoag, and more, were there in support. The mood was one where people acknowledged that we could not change past wrongs, but it was clear that we all have the responsibility to do whatever possible to right the wrong in the present and help set things on a better path forward.

I was humbled by the generosity of the native people as the Lakota and others arrived that day graciously, thanking the community and bearing gifts that they gave to the Barre Board members and all members of the audience. They ended the saga of their ancestor’s items repatriation with a Wopila ceremony, giving thanks. That evening, we were honored with the ability to load the boxes into a vehicle and watch the Lakota drive it out of town. A contingency of Lakota youth caravanned the country, protecting the collection as it was brought home to the tribal territory in the Dakotas. Witnessing that day and the transition felt like a true gift for people from all backgrounds. May this be just one of numerous examples of people doing whatever is possible to help change the course of past wrongs and move toward true healing.

Bearing witness to this experience reaffirms the belief that we can and must progress to a place where fairness and justice for all are the true definition of the freedom and decency proclaimed by this democracy. What is really of value? Shouldn’t decency come before profession, class, ethnicity, nationalism, greed, or the like? There is no excuse for such unjust behavior. As a few people shared on November 5th in Barre, Martin Luther King said, “It is never too late to do the right thing.”

I recognize how much I have learned from the native people’s approach to life, and I continue to be humbled by their generous nature and care for all life, past, present, and future.

In honor of the Lakota people & all the world’s indigenous tribes,

John Willis