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By Laura Elliff Cruz, Collections Manager

Historically, museums and academic institutions have acquired and amassed Indigenous cultural items for their own use and benefit with minimal consideration from descendant communities. The Indigenous Collections Care (ICC) Working Group was established to advocate for approaches that privilege Indigenous knowledge and center concepts of culturally appropriate care for items in museum collections by creating a reference tool and guide. The ICC Guide will provide a framework to respect and recenter collections stewardship practices around the needs and knowledge of Native American community members.

At the beginning of 2021, twenty Native and non-Native professionals from various types of museums, universities, tribes, and organizations from throughout the United States began virtual monthly meetings to discuss the importance of Indigenous collections care. Co-facilitators Laura Bryant (Gilcrease Museum) and Marla Taylor (The Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology) prepare language for each section of the ICC Guide in advance of the group’s scheduled meetings. Each meeting consists of an intensive dive into a specific section of the ICC Guide where language is dissected and unifying ideas and perspectives are safely and respectfully shared. Furthermore, many of the group members assisted in the creation of, or have been inspired by, the School for Advanced Research’s (SAR) Guidelines for Collaboration and the Standards for Museums with Native American Collections. Both documents are complementary to the ICC Guide which offers actionable steps and considerations for implementation.

The ICC Guide is meant to be alive and growing, just like this practice and the individuals engaging in this work. Currently, the language and practices detailed within the ICC Guide are meant specifically to apply to Native American nations and communities. However, the ICC Guide lays out ideas and framework that can be applied when stewarding collections from any non-Western community. The ICC Guide will NOT have instructions on specific care needs or practices as those vary by community and, in some cases, within a community. The document will be an accessible reference tool offering considerations and guidance for professionals who interact regularly with Native material culture and culturally sensitive items.

This framework can be used when engaging with communities, building equitable relationships, awaiting repatriation, drafting collections policies and procedures, advocating with administration, or reflecting on and growing within your own practice. Additionally, the ICC Guide does NOT replace or provide instructions for repatriation or the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) compliance efforts. Culturally appropriate stewardship practices can be incorporated into NAGPRA consultations, repatriation efforts, and the care and trust of materials prior to repatriation when desired by the community. The practice outlined in the ICC Guide should never be prioritized over repatriation, a requirement by federal law.

An example of a breathable box (a consideration under the Handling and Housing section)

An example of a breathable box (a consideration under the Handling and Housing section). Photograph by Laura Elliff Cruz.

A glimpse into a few of the sections include: Handling and Housing, Research, Spiritual Care, Image Protocols, and Associated Documentation. A draft of the ICC Guide will be completed late summer 2023. Additionally, pending grant funding, 2023–2025 will consist of two content review sessions with twenty-five museum professionals each and five content review sessions with twenty-five tribal representatives each for continuance of a collaborative document creation. A complete ICC Guide is planned for 2026.

Laura Elliff Cruz, collections manager at the Indian Arts Research Center (IARC) serves as a liaison between SAR and is an active member of the ICC working group. Please look for updates on the Indigenous Collections Care website located at: https://sarweb.org/iarc/icc/