’aayatom sapo’saapo’s, Nez Perce Woman’s Saddle, (c. 1830–1845) Bison hide, cottonwood, pigment, wool, 60 x 32 cm. Collection of the Nez Perce National Historical Park (all images courtesy the Nez Perce National Historical Park)

On June 25, representatives from the Nez Perce Tribe and the Ohio History Connection, which manages over 50 of the state’s historical sites and museums, met to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the return of a collection of Nez Perce artifacts. At the event, the group of over 20 objects, formerly known as the Spalding-Allen Collection, was renamed to the Wetxuuwíitin Collection; the word “Wetxuuwíitin” means “returned home after a period of captivity,” appropriately for items that the tribe had been missing since the mid-1840s.

While the occasion was a celebratory one, it also highlighted that, back in 1996, Nez Perce Tribe members had fundraised hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay the Ohio History Connection to secure artifacts that were rightfully theirs. On November 23, the Ohio History Connection visited the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho and returned the $608,100 that the tribe paid 25 years ago.

The traditional Nez Perce objects, including moccasins, leggings, shirts, hats, horse gear, and storage bags, were acquired between 1841 and 1846 by a Christian missionary named Henry Spalding. Spalding dispatched these items to a benefactor in Ohio named Dr. Dudley Allen, who sent Spalding commodities in return. When Allen died, his son donated the artifacts to Oberlin College, which loaned the bulk of the collection to the Ohio History Connection (which was at that point the Ohio Historical Society). Neither institution exhibited the items.

ˀiméesnim ˀítetp’es, Nez Perce Deer Head Shape Bag (c. 1836–1874), Hide, sinew, glass beads, 39 x 46 cm. (Collection of the Nez Perce National Historical Park)

In 1976, curators at the Nez Perce National Historical Park, which comprises 38 sites in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington that are important to Nez Perce people, became aware of the objects in the historical society’s collection. Four years later, they were able to secure the items on loan from the Ohio History Connection, and promptly put them on long-term view in special display cases.

However, in 1993, the Ohio History Connection demanded that the collection be permanently returned. After declining requests that the objects be donated, the organization indicated that it would sell the items to the Nez Perce Tribe at market value — if the tribe could raise the funds within six months. The tribe hired an economic development strategist and, with the help of thousands of donors throughout the world, managed to raise the money to buy back the collection, as well as an important Nez Perce cradleboard. This summer, the Nez Perce Tribe invited the Ohio History Connection to celebrate a quarter-century since the items’ official return home, as well as the collection’s renaming.

toˀynóˀayn, Nez Perce Crupper (c. 1820–1840), Bison hide, wool brass, tin, sinew, cotton, 75 cm. (Collection of the Nez Perce National Historical Park)

“As delighted as I was to learn about the renaming of the Wetxuuwíitin collection, the invitation was also a painful reminder of the shameful mistreatment and marginalization of American Indians since the arrival of Europeans on the North American continent,” said Ohio History Connection Executive Director and CEO Burt Logan in a statement. Logan added that he and other members of the organization had not been aware of what transpired in 1996 when the historical society was under different leadership.

“This summer we diligently sought to learn as much as possible, and to process what this means to our organization. If the Wetxuuwíitin Collection was in the possession of the Ohio History Connection today, we would freely return these items to their rightful home. With this clear conclusion, our Board of Trustees voted at its September 2021 meeting to return $608,100 to the Tribe,” Logan continued.

“We are pleased to see this wrong corrected,” said Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee Chairman Samuel Penny in a statement. “To this day there seems to be a common misunderstanding of the significance of items such as those in the Wetxuuwíitin Collection. To us these are not pieces of art or décor, they are pieces of us and they retain the spirits of our ancestors.”

“These healing steps — bringing the items home, providing a fitting name and now reimbursement — give our people hope and build on that connection that’s been missing for far too long,” said Penny.

In honor of the collection’s renaming, the Nez Perce National Historical Park has made the Wetxuuwíitin Collection viewable online, along with several oral histories.

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Cassie Packard

Cassie Packard is an NYC-based writer and cultural critic with bylines at publications including Artforum, BOMB, frieze, and Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.

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