Museum and Library, Barre, MA

Two pictures come to mind: On my first cross-country trip some 25 years ago, I traveled through Kansas and saw a sign off I-70: Downtown, with an arrow to the right. I looked out across those immense wheat farms and saw just one thing: a silo. The silo was downtown.

The second picture is in the photo above and it’s of the Bare Museum and Library in downtown Barre: A stereotypical New England town only bigger, with the white church, the white town hall, the library, the café, the local hair salon, the broad, grassy commons, lots of flags, lots of white picket fences. What makes this one special is that its library houses the Barre Museum, which itself contains hundreds of items belonging to Native American tribes, including a number that were looted from corpses of those killed in the Wounded Knee massacre.

Our friends from Cheyenne River who are aways part of the Zen Peacemakers’ summer Black Hills retreat, Manny and Renee Iron Hawk, were at Barre asking for these items to be returned to them (they are members of the Descendants of Wounded Knee organization) a few months ago. I wasn’t there at the time, but I followed the news carefully, and finally, after checking with Manny and Renee, decided to go there to talk with some of the people involved, which I did yesterday.

My sense was that both the Museum and the Lakota want this repatriation to happen, and that the breakdown happens, as it often does, in the communication. It’s why I still remember the silo in “downtown Kansas” from so many years back.

In many ways, we’re all silos. No matter how much we try to talk with each other, write, text, email, do everything we know to communicate, we inexorably frame ourselves within an imaginary construct called I or me, add stories and labels to make it feel real, and voila: we exist! Not as one of an infinite number of dharma eyes, but as a silo, self-isolating, self-centered, self-reinforcing again and again. No wonder that two people living under the same roof for many years often feel that they don’t really know the other person, not really.

Now imagine what happens when you throw in a different culture, different values, different histories, different language. It’s a wonder we can say anything at all and feel understood by the other.

Sure enough, we sat outside before the hot sun climbed over the trees (we’re under heat alerts for a couple of days). “We don’t know what items were taken from Wounded Knee and belong to the Lakota and what aren’t,” said Ann Meilus, who speaks for the Museum. “We have items from other tribes who may want theirs returned, too.”

She described the process the Museum’s governing body had to do to obtain a consensus to repatriate what they have there. Now they’ve begun to inventory everything, which includes documentation and photos, under the supervision of a museum curator and historian, and when that process is over, they would like Manny and Renee to come back, do ceremony, and will transport those items to Cheyenne River.

Our Lakota friends, in the meantime, are distrustful of the Museum. Government or institutional bureaucracy hasn’t favored them historically, time passes, excuses abound, and they still don’t have the clothes, the jewelry, and the ceremonial items that belong to their ancestors. The lack of trust on both sides is palpable.

Ann mentioned that since newspaper accounts have come out about this story, many of them inaccurate, she and staff have been on the receiving end of so much outrage and hate that her docents won’t work in the museum anymore. “Nobody gets paid here, everybody is a volunteer, and when you get so much rage from people who’re mostly unfamiliar with the situation and just react based on something they read, it can be really discouraging.”

Barbara Becker, who wrote the award-winning Heartwood: The Art of Living With the End in Mind , and I offered our services as communication facilitators. We’ve built relationships with the Lakota both at Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge, we’ve borne witness to what they’ve endured and continue to endure—they have every right in the world to distrust what some private museum out East is doing with their things. And these are their things, no one doubts that.

But we both also believe the Museum sincerely wishes to repatriate their items. Today I spoke to the curator who’s supervising the cataloguing, and he surprised me by saying that the inventory process is almost over, and letters will go out to various Native communities asking them to make a formal claim for certain articles that are theirs or may be of interest to them. Once these claims are officially made and publicized, the actual repatriation process will begin. These communities include Indian tribes from California, who have articles in the Museum, and others.

How do you translate between people who wish to honor these personal items as important reminders of a terrible history of the US, and those who say: that’s very nice, but they belong to us, period? You can take sides and make this just another front in an old, old war, which I believe many people did on social media.

Or you can create a space for more feedback, more two-way information, keeping as many in the loop as possible, and going clear-sightedly ahead, one day after the next, till actual repatriation takes place (I believe it will). You can bear witness to the different realities we all experience and make room for each other with patience and also with determination to achieve the end result.

You can take this situation as a chance to increase rancor and partisanship, or as an opportunity to build bridges between silos.

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