The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) repatriated a Prairie Chicken Society headdress and a Weather Dance robe to the Siksika Nation, located in present-day Alberta, in a July 7 ceremony at the museum’s Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland. The two Natowa’piists, or sacred items, had been missing for some time: the Museum of the American Indian, the NMAI’s predecessor institution, acquired the headdress in 1908, while William Wildschut acquired the robe in 1924. Now that they have been returned, both objects will again be utilized in Siksika ceremonies.
It is unknown how the headdress, which belonged to the leader of the Prairie Chicken Society, found its way to the Museum of the American Indian, an institution founded by former investment banker George Gustav Heye in 1916 to house his collection of 58,000 — and, by his death in 1957, some 800,000 — Native American artifacts. The collection, which was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1989, represents around 85% of the NMAI’s holdings.
Wildschut, who acquired the Weather Dance robe, went on ethnographic expeditions on Heye’s behalf in the 1920s, operating in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Canada, and North Dakota from 1921 to 1928. He acquired the robe from its maker, notable Siksika Weather Dancer Yellow Old Woman. Weather Dancers maintain a spiritual connection with Natosi, or the sun, and are responsible for controlling the weather during ceremonies such as the Sundance.
Yellow Old Woman’s great-grandson, Herman Yellow Old Woman, is also a Weather Dancer, having received his transferred rite in 2016. The ceremonial elder has long advocated for the sacred objects’ return, which was approved in May 2021. Alongside Siksika Nation Chief and Council representative Kent Ayoungman, he attended the July 7 ceremony to collect the objects and bring them home.
In a statement released by the Siksika Nation the day of the ceremony, Herman Yellow Old Woman said:
These items have been gone for almost 100 years, so the thing that is amazing for us, is these materials (Natowa’piists) are going to go right back into action. There are transfers that will take place, sweats that will take place when we get them home. The Sundance is coming up in the next two weeks and they will be transferred and put right back into circulation, so today is an honor. It is very emotional.
“You can feel the power and spirit in these bundles and I feel excited for our Nation, our people,” he added. “The Prairie Chicken Society are going to be able to see and use this headdress the way our ancestors did a hundred years ago and I can imagine our ancestors and how excited they are.”
“Repatriation has always been one of the highest priorities for the National Museum of the American Indian,” said Machel Monenerkit, the NMAI’s acting director, in a statement. “Our repatriation policy embodies our mission and vision, and we are proud to have worked with the Siksika Nation to ensure the return of these objects.”
The 1989 National Museum of the American Indian Act, which was part and parcel of the creation of the NMAI, requires that the museum inventory, identify, and return Native American human remains and funerary objects. In 1996, the law was amended to extend to sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony — categories that apply to the headdress and the robe. While the law doesn’t include First Nations or Indigenous Peoples outside of the United States, such as the Siksika Nation, the museum’s own restitution policy enables it to make these returns on a case-by-case basis.
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