Rachel Pannabecker is director of Kauffman Museum and assistant professor of social science at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas.

It is an honor for me to be here today. It is an honor for me to stand with you as witnesses to the dedication of Return to the Earth. Return to the Earth is a visionary approach to repatriating unidentified and unclaimed remains of native Americans. It is a response that goes beyond compliance with the law to offer healing resolution.

Repatriation of human remains and funerary objects is the center of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. And this Act has generated significant activity in American museums, particularly those with archaeology divisions. But there are two other NAGPRA repatriation categories that require response from the museum community:

  • sacred objects that are needed to continue practicing traditional, American Indian religions
  • objects of cultural patrimony—that is, items with cultural significance to a native American group that should be understood as being collectively owned, and which an individual, therefore, would not have right to sell or donate to a museum.

Museums identify objects for repatriation based on provenance. Provenance comes from the French language meaning "origin." As a museum term, provenance has come to mean "collecting history." This started in the art world where the value of art is often increased according to who owned the art piece (royalty, super-wealthy). Thus it becomes important to document the history of who owned the artwork. History museums were slower to insist on this type of information. But with native American artifacts, provenance is a critical factor in judging the credibility of information a museum has about an artifact. Credible provenance can clarify:

  • what the object is
  • what it meant
  • to whom it belonged
  • and thus whether it should be repatriated according to NAGPRA.

Kauffman Museum can provide a case study for understanding these issues. We are considered to be a small museum even though our annual budget regularly tops $200,000. We have two distinct roots:

  • the Museum of Natural History begun at Bethel College in 1896 which is 110 years ago this fall
  • Charles Kauffman's private museum in Marion, South Dakota, which was integrated with the Bethel collections in 1940. March 10, 2006 marked the 65th anniversary of the grand opening of Kauffman Museum at Bethel College.

The provenance of the cultural collections at Kauffman Museum can only be understood in the context of people who profess Christian faith within a Mennonite identity in relationship with other peoples of the world. Those relationships emerged almost entirely from the mission efforts of the Mennonite church.

I have brought with me today an object which represents the encounter of traditional Cheyennes and a German-speaking Mennonite from Kansas. This box contains a pipe given to Jacob B. Ediger, who served as a missionary among the Cheyenne of Oklahoma from 1907 to 1947. Sometime in the early years of his ministry, Ediger was honored in a ceremony where he was given the Cheyenne name So'taa'e. At this ceremony, according to Ediger's daughter Anne Ruth, Kias, the son of Wolf-Coming-through-a-Crowd and White Horse Woman, brought out this pipe made of polished pipestone. When the igniting coal had taken, Kias offered the pipe to the four directions, to the earth, to Maheo the Creator before starting it on its round. When the pipe was smoked out, and ashes scraped on the ground, the pipe belonged to So'taa'e (from "SO'TAA'E," a poem by Anne Ruth Ediger Baehr sent by Ediger to Kauffman Museum in 1989).

The story is poignant because of the name that these Cheyenne elders gave Ediger. The So'ta were an independent band with similar cultural and language characteristics to the Cheyennes. They became allied with the larger Cheyenne group sometime after they left the Great Lakes woodlands for the open expanses of the Great Plains. Thus, Ediger was honored with a name that implies a willingness to recognize human similarities and to acknowledge brotherhood. Ironically Ediger never reached a fluency level where he was comfortable enough to preach in the Cheyenne language, although he was able to converse socially in Cheyenne.

The pipe was presented to Kauffman Museum in 1988 by Ediger's oldest daughter Hilda (Ediger) Voth. Because it came to Kauffman Museum after the completion of our permanent exhibit, the pipe became part of our study collections.

From a collections standpoint, this pipe's provenance is quite direct: from Kias to Ediger to daughter Hilda to Kauffman Museum. The oral history clarifies that it was a public gift from Kias to Ediger. Yet the strength of this provenance is also its weakness. The sole conduit of information is second-generation family. However, we do have some corroborating evidence:

  • Anne Ruth's papers show that she did not remember the name of the Cheyenne elder who gave her father the pipe until after a visit to Oklahoma in 1982—suggesting that family memory was tested with members of the Cheyenne community.
  • the pipestem is decoratively carved from pipestone rather than simple wood as in ceremonial pipes—suggesting that this non-traditional pipe was intended as an honoring gift.

With this information we believe that this pipe does not fit the legal definition of artifacts to be repatriated. But we recognize the necessity of being open to renegotiating the interpretation of artifacts. A prime example: The Peabody Museum at Harvard University misidentified a Zuni war god as a "Hopi? door post." With a precedent like this from an elite, scholarly institution, we acknowledge that understanding the cultural meanings of artifacts is an on-going and humbling process.

Just this week a woman from Minneapolis, Minnesota, mailed Kauffman Museum a brochure that she had picked up at an eco-museum in Brazil because she liked a quote on the front by Hugues de Varine (past director of International Council of Museums): "The museum is a mirror into which the community looks in order to recognize itself."

Kauffman Museum's cultural collections are the "real stuff" that can help us see our separate histories as well as significant cultural connections. Thus, this pipe, which represents a Cheyenne-initiated encounter with a Mennonite missionary, is meaningful to Cheyennes and to Mennonites regardless of ethnic or cultural background. In recognition of our role as caretakers of story and meaning as well as artifacts, the staff, volunteers, and board of directors of Kauffman Museum commit ourselves to open access to collections and to continuing consultations regarding artifacts in our care.

Further reading on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act:

  • Hart, Lawrence. "Naevahoo'ohtseme—'We Are Going Back Home': Repatriating a Young Cheyenne Girl Killed at the Sand Creek Massacre." In Sacred Objects and Sacred Places: Preserving Tribal Traditions, ed. Andrew Gulliford, 33-38. Niwot, CO: University of Colorado Press, 2000.
  • Mihesuah, Devon A. Repatriation Reader: Who Owns American Indian Remains? Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
  • National NAGPRA. 2006. National Park Service. 24 July 2006.