Who Owns The Past? For Native Americans, Reclaiming Family Heirlooms Is a Tricky Business

Tribes like the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho are no longer in possession of their ancestors' most sacred objects. Instead, they're now housed in places like Episcopal Church Diocese in Casper, Wyoming and the Field Museum in Chicago.


But the tribes still live in Wind River, Wyoming, where creating a local native American museum quickly became a difficult operation as a result of the competitive heirloom economy.

A new documentary titled What was Ours tells the story of three tribal members—Jordan Dresser, Mikala SunRhodes and Philbert McLeod—who seek to reclaim the history of their land and create an empowering experience for their people.

“Our ancestors have fought for us as Indian people to live this way,” said SunRhodes. “We’re strong people because we have gone through so much. I’m proud of where I live and where I come from. I have to keep fighting for what I’ve been given.”

Native American artifacts can sell for tens of thousands of dollars and collecting is a tricky business, both legally and ethically.

"There are issues around where objects come from," pointed out John Buxton, an appraiser of Native American objects on the television series "Antiques Roadshow." "Are they from public lands or private lands? Are they grave goods? Were they made from an endangered species? Do you have good title? Are they stolen? It's a lot more complicated than it was 25 years ago."

At the Field Museum, Dresser, SunRhodes and McLeod learned that the artifacts had been purchased by a curator in the early 20th century after members of the tribe sold them to survive. Many of these artifacts are not even on display. The only upside is that they are being preserved.

The Wind River artifacts were purchased by George A. Dorsey, a U.S. ethnographer of Indigenous peoples of the Americas, who was hired as curator by the Field Museum in 1896.

“We went there to go view pieces of ourselves, but we had to leave them there,” said Dresser.

"These were people who needed those cash funds," curator emeritus Jonathan Haas said of the tribes who sold the objects. "And they were forced to participate in an economy that wasn't theirs."

What Was Ours will stream online beginning January 17.

Watch an exclusive clip:

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