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Restorative Research Identifies Native American Objects

The process of “salvage anthropology” was intended to rescue endangered cultural objects. Yet, according to Margaret Bruchac, one of the newest members of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Anthropology, museum collecting often interfered with the continuity of Native American cultural practices. Using what she characterizes as a “radical” approach that relies on multiple lines of evidence, Bruchac aims to better identify Native American cultural materials in museum collections...

Bruchac has already unraveled some mysteries surrounding particular wampum objects. When two wampum belts went up for sale at Sotheby’s in 2009, for example, she dug through archives, closely examined the belts themselves and interviewed Haudenosaunee tribal leaders. Her research pointed to Frank Speck, one of the founders of Penn’s Department of Anthropology, who had purchased four Kanehsatake Mohawk wampum belts from a Frenchman in 1913. Speck sold two belts to his colleague Edward Sapir and two to George Gustav Heye, founder of the Museum of the American Indian. Bruchac also uncovered evidence of a 1970s state investigation into the secretive sales of more than 80,000 Native objects from MAI into the private art market. She then charted the transactions that led up to the Sotheby’s notice.

“Remarkably, all of this was documentable,” she says. “That’s where restorative methodologies come in because sometimes artifacts can circulate so far from their Indigenous origins, and so many false meanings can be attached along the way.”

Read the full story at Penn News.