Tribal Collections

Considerable parts of our holdings at the Museum of Geology were obtained from Lakota tribal land.  This week, Sally Shelton discusses some of the specific issues associated with specimens under tribal ownership.

Taŋyáŋ yahípi (Welcome)

The Museum of Geology is a repository for collections belonging to other entities. We provide curation and care for fossil specimens from a number of tribal, state, and Federal agencies, but they are the owners of their collections here.

Some of the most important specimens we care for are from the fossil-rich lands of our Lakota friends and colleagues. In the past, these specimens were not treated in the same way as public repository collections. There was an assumption that collecting on tribal and even private lands without formal permits or permission was acceptable practice as long as the fossils came to the Museum.

Today, we find that practice to be unacceptable. In the first place, we have no right to collect on any land where we do not have permission to be. We work with the landowners and land management agencies to ensure that our collecting is legal, accountable, and trackable.

In the second place, fossils from tribal lands have deep value and meaning to the people of those lands. While some might consider scientific, historic, and cultural value to be three separate and different things, they are all one to the Lakota.

Wilmer Mesteth, who was both a Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (THPO) and a spiritual leader at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, once told us that there is not a fossil we could find there that does not have a traditional story associated with it. The Lakota know about the animals that once roamed their lands, and are the first people to name and describe them. We feel honored that Mr. Mesteth conducted a blessing and smudging of our new building before he walked on to the next world.

A former curator of ours, Reid Macdonald, honored the Lakota tradition by creating scientific names for new taxa based on Lakota words.  In cooperation with tribal members, Reid made important collections in the vicinity of Wounded Knee.  Reid named such colorful taxa as the canid Sunkahetanks (“big-toothed dog”), the hedgehog Ocajila (“little oddity”), the beaver Capatanka (“big beaver”), and the ever popular primate Ekgmowechashala (“little cat man”).

IMG_2181
Partial jaw of the early Miocene beaver Capacikala (“little beaver”).  

Managing tribal fossil collections requires traditional as well as scientific knowledge in order to provide culturally respectful practices. A new generation of tribal paleontologists is tackling those complex issues, and we are honored to be a small part of preparing those experts for the challenges of good practice. As one of our Lakota friends told us, a good tribal paleontologist has a foot in each world, and knows (and preserves) the stories as well as the science.

We now work with the THPO offices to determine best practices for the respectful care of their collections. This includes limiting non-tribal access to these specimens, selecting good-quality storage materials, keeping them out of the line of sight in storage through closed cases and shelf covers, and allowing ceremonial events to take place in collections. We do not use these specimens for teaching or research without getting the THPO’s permission to do so, just as we do with all our agency partners and stakeholders.

Much of this is determined by the consensus decisions of the elders, who inform the THPO of the practices that are necessary. There is not a guidebook for setting step-by-step procedures for managing tribal collections in our care; we address concerns with the THPO on a case-by-case basis. As our documentation of these collections expands, we will share databases and other resources with the tribe. Wherever we can turn collections management into a teaching opportunity for tribal students, such as learning databasing, preparation, and collections management, we will do so.

There is a major initiative to increase the number of people who speak the Lakota language, through everything from early childhood immersion classes to college teaching. We have discussed adding Lakota-language labeling to our exhibits and outreach materials. Fossils naturally intrigue and interest people of all ages; finding out the Lakota connections of many of our specimens would, we hope, get Lakota young people even more interested in learning the language.

As we work more closely with the Lakota, we are creating more opportunities for students at Oglala Lakota College and SDSM&T to work together on fossil monitoring, collecting, preparation, and research. We have started looking at all of our collections as shared resources, and even started returning specimens that are more appropriately housed in tribal centers. This is not required by law, but is what we feel is the best ethical practice.

It is time for many of these fossils to go home.

 

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