Native American Heritage Month

In the U.S., November is Native American Heritage Month. It is a month to recognize and celebrate the diverse culture and contributions of Native Americans. This month also serves as a time to educate and reflect on the history of Native Americans in the United States. In order to honor and appreciate Native American cultures, one must acknowledge the reality of how they have been treated in this country. Despite the obstacles presented to them by the government and society, Native Americans have continuously persevered. The contributions of Native Americans are a testament to their tenacity and ability to overcome challenges they have faced throughout history.

Ann Riley-Adams, member of the Osage Nation and English Doctoral Fellow at the U of A, said she thinks issues affecting the Native American community should always be discussed.

“Why aren’t we talking about Native American issues all the time?”  Riley-Adams said. “We shouldn’t need to save them for a month.”

A Complicated History

There is a complicated history behind the relationship between Native American communities and museums. During the late 1800s, Native American cemeteries were subjected to grave looting and robbing (Dresser). In 1906, the Antiquities Act, while aimed at protecting cultural sites and cemeteries from looting, vandalism, and destruction from public works projects, gave anthropologists legal precedent over Native American lands which resulted in museums and federal agencies collecting many remains and cultural materials that belonged to Native Americans (Dresser).

In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed, and it allowed federally recognized tribes to gain possession of their cultural materials that had been taken (“NPS:Archaeology Program”). Under this act, lineal descendants have the power to make the final decision about the disposition of the cultural materials (“Facilitating Respectful Return”). While this act was an effort on behalf of the federal government to return cultural materials to those to whom it belonged to, this Act did come with limitations. Entities that do not receive federal funding are excluded under the Act, therefore, there are still wrongly acquired cultural materials that have not been repatriated to Tribal communities (Dresser).

Kieran Adams, M.A. in Museum Studies and History and a member of the Osage Nation, said he believes that museums are an important source of educating others about Native American cultures.

“Museums perform a vital role with regard to portraying Native American culture and their collections allow people to actually learn about Native Americans in a way that would not be possible without them,” Adams said. “One of the important things about museums’ relationships with Native American Tribes is to ensure sure the provenance of those items is accurately represented.”

Adams said the provenance of the artifact can change how that artifact should be treated or portrayed.

Adams said he believes that for museums to address their history in relation to Native American culture, museums need to be honest.

“The first step to that [honesty] is acknowledging the fact that not all objects that museums have come into possession of have been acquired honestly or have been acquired in a way that would be considered ethical in terms of modern interpretation,” Adams  said.

Where the U of A Museum Stands

As an administrative unit of the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, the University of Arkansas Museum would like to share the College’s Land Acknowledgement Statement:

“The Indigenous history of the land the University of Arkansas campus sits on goes back to time immemorial, and across that expanse of time, many successive groups have lived here and created sacred legacies in this area. Fulbright College acknowledges Indigenous peoples were forced to leave their ancestral lands, including the Osage, Caddo, and Quapaw Nations with ties to Northwest Arkansas. We further recognize that a portion of the Trail of Tears runs through our campus, and that the Cherokee, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), Chickasaw and Seminole Nations passed through what is now Arkansas during this forced removal. We acknowledge all Indigenous teachers, researchers and all other residents in our community and region today. We proudly offer Indigenous Studies in our college and seek continuity and connection to the past as we look to the future with increased collaboration with Indigenous governments and entities.”

Furthermore, the Museum acknowledges all indigenous cultural materials held within the collections, which represent those with ancestral lands in Arkansas, over 70 other Native American groups across the United States, and multiple communities around the world. We recognize that our institution has previously contributed to a long and complex history of colonialism in museums through the collection of certain sensitive cultural materials and burial remains, sometimes acquired from unethical sources by today’s standards. Starting in 1990, in accordance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, we began efforts to repatriate these materials back to the tribal entities in which they truly belong. These efforts continue today. We believe ongoing transparency and acknowledgement of our past, as well as active work on a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Plan to reflect on our present and organize for our future will further progress in decolonizing the Museum and making it a space sincerely for all.

Summer Wilkie, member of the Cherokee Nation and a Native American Student Ambassador, said she believes museums should work with the Native American community to educate others about their artifacts.

“In my opinion the museum has a responsibility not only to inform the descendants of the people who created the artifacts of their existence and return them if possible but also share existing academic research related to the artifacts and make all future research guided by or in collaboration with the descendants,” Wilkie wrote.

Many artifacts in the University of Arkansas Museum collections have been repatriated to culturally affiliated Native American Tribes under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and connections are maintained with them. The repatriation process is as follows: The museum curator identifies the materials to be repatriated in the collections, and then reaches out to the point of contact for the respective tribe to initiate the process of repatriation. Some of the repatriated Native American cultural materials remain at the University of Arkansas Museum at the tribes’ discretion for security and environmental needs. Any usage or research request of a repatriated cultural material must receive tribal permission. Work is still to be done though as repatriation of cultural materials to their respective Native tribes is an ongoing process.

Native American Cultures on Campus and Beyond

The richness and diversity of Native American Cultures is kept alive on the university’s campus by Native American students. The University of Arkansas’s Native American Students Association is an active RSO on campus that was first formed in 2009. This month its members are spending their time celebrating and sharing their culture with others. To get involved with the Native American Students Association email Summer Wilkie or join on Hogsync. Follow them on Instagram @nasauark to learn more about the organization and upcoming events! Another Native American RSO is the University of Arkansas chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES). It was formed in 2009 and is still active. To join or learn more about AISES email

Throughout the month of November, the Native American Students Association, Multicultural Center, Indigenous Studies and the Office for Diversity and Inclusion are hosting events celebrating the contributions, history, and culture of Native Americans.

Adams said the best way to learn about Native American cultures is to visit Native American cultural centers. A list of Native American Tribal museum can be found at

“They want to tell their own story,” Riley-Adams said.

To learn more about the Osage Tribe visit the Osage Tribal Museum and the Cultural Center in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

Post Author: Elijah Conley, the Museum’s 2020-2021 Outreach Intern. He is a U of A senior studying Journalism and Political Science.


Literature Cited

Dresser, Jordan. Native American Artifacts Tell a Story of Loss, Betrayal and Survival. 11 Jan. 2017,

Facilitating Respectful Return. 22 Nov. 2019,

NPS Archeology Program: The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).