Changing Perspectives: ‘Guidelines for the Treatment of Sacred Objects’

From the Smithsonian to the smallest local history chapters, museum collections hold special meaning to their communities. Often, these collections contain family heirlooms, town documents, and historic photographs. Museum collecting practices have changed greatly over time, particularly in response to social movements. During the Red Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s, indigenous peoples fought for greater representation in American society and for the respect of their cultural heritage.

Many museums collections reflected this contentious past within their collection holdings. In the past, some artifacts were acquired through unethical means including deception, swindling, or outright theft. Over the years museum holdings expanded greatly by these unsavory methods. Many of these original acquisitions were done in the name of science. Early 20th century anthropologists amassed great volumes of material in order to document “dying” cultures. Some of these ethnographic collections included human remains from indigenous peoples from across the globe.

War bonnets
Native American objects on display

One of the results of the Red Power social movement was the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990. NAGPRA permitted lineal descendants and federally recognized tribes to claim ownership of human remains, funerary, and sacred objects that were being held in federally supported organizations and museums. [1] This includes any public or private institution that receives federal funding. Interestingly, this mandate does not apply to the Smithsonian Institution holdings; separate legislation was passed to address Smithsonian collections and the issue of repatriation. The National Museum of the American Indian repatriation policies can be found here. Although the process of repatriation is far from perfect and can take months or even years, NAGPRA was one of the most important pieces of museum legislation in the last 30 years. It directly addressed Native American material culture and the representation of indigenous peoples within museums.

The management of these sacred artifacts is the subject of Heid Erdrich’s 2008 poem, Guidelines for the Treatment of Sacred Objects. Erdrich does not comment on acid-free housing materials, light levels, or the correct combination or temperature and humidity. She does not discuss pest management or the proper cataloging practices. Rather she writes,

“If an object calls for its mother,

boil water and immediately swaddle it.

If an object calls for other family members,

Or calls collect after midnight, refer to tribally

Specific guidelines. Reverse charges.” [2]

Erdrich personifies these sacred objects, giving them life, character. By changing the traditional, academic perspective Erdrich changes one’s relationship to the object itself. It is no longer static, something to be acted upon and measured. The object is living, vibrant, it can make a collect call.

This change of perspective can, perhaps give greater insight into the meaning of a seemingly, visually ordinary object. An example of the sacred found within the everyday is explored in Louise Erdrich (Heid’s sister) novel, The Round House. The book follows teenage Joe Coutts and his experience growing up on a reservation in North Dakota, his mother’s rape, and the subsequent consequences for their family and community. One night, Joe helps to set up the ceremony at the sweat lodge. The lodge is heated with a sacred fire that contains large stones, or grandfathers, that are placed in the middle of the fire to help generate heat. [3] Joe narrates his role at the sweat lodge, “Cappy had already made the fire. The rocks, the grandfathers, were superheating in the middle. Our job was to keep that fire going, hand in the sacred pipes and medicines, bring the rocks to the door on long-handled shovels, close and open the flaps.” [4] The stones and their functions serve as an integral part of the ceremony. To those unfamiliar with the sweat lodge, these fairly inconspicuous stones help build understanding of the practice, and in turn, those involved in the ceremony.


[1] National Parks Service, National NAGPRA site. Accessed April 4, 2016.

[2] Erdrich, Heid, “Guidelines for the Treatment of Sacred Objects.” National Monuments, (Michigan State University Press, 2008): 4-6.

[3] Erdrich, Louise. The Round House. (New York, NY: Harper, 2012), 41.

[4] Ibid., 40-41.


North Dakota Landscape,

Native American artifacts in museum display courtesy of Deadwood History, Inc.

16 thoughts on “Changing Perspectives: ‘Guidelines for the Treatment of Sacred Objects’

  1. I really found the poem by Erdrich powerful and honestly when I was reading it, I wasn’t completely sure if she was being sarcastic or authentic about how to care for certain ceremonial or sacred objects. When she gives the objects life it brings into focus that we as museum professionals don’t always understand the deeper meaning behind the object. I also had no clue that the Smithsonian had a different set of regulations and standards than what is outlined in NAGPRA… very interesting.

    1. I might be totally off-base on this, but I saw some sarcasm in it. It seemed like she was satirizing bureaucrats who were trying to write guidelines for caring for Native American material culture while understanding neither the material nor the culture.

    2. I thought it was really interesting that the Smithsonian in particular was exempt from NAGPRA. However, in reading some of their regulations it seems really really similar. Though, I haven’t read NAGPRA or the Smithsonian equivalent in its entirety I would like to know the discrepancies and the thought behind the two separate pieces of legislation.

  2. I loved this poem, and I’m glad you unpacked it for us! There’s often such a sharp divide between how a museum professional (or any “outsider”) thinks about objects and the purpose they were originally made to serve. In this poem, objects have more than a purpose, they have a life of their own. I feel like this should be required reading for anyone going into collections–a reminder that there are things more important than the principles of conservation.

  3. Nice blog, Mikaela. I think Heid Erdich’s poem really speaks to the fact that these objects are much more than just something to be looked at. They require respect and if museums are going to exhibit these items, they must be willing to work with the groups to which they belong to ensure that they are cared for according to tradition. I think in cases like this, respecting the item goes a lot further than proper handling or preservation.

  4. Like Cassidy, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this poem as it transitioned from what seemed like serious advice to something more satirical. But I do think that the underlying message in this piece is to remind the reader that artifacts are not just objects. They have life and power. They have different personalities and must be looked at the way you would look at different people with different needs. While this is something we must particularly be reminded of when dealing with artifacts from cultures other than our own, I like this way of thinking when applied to objects in general. Thinking about the power and the personalities of objects is what brings them to life.

  5. As you said in your post, it’s easy for objects to lose their original meaning and purpose over time, especially when they become a part of museum collections. Not only do objects often have complex cultural meanings, they also have unique meaning to each person who used and/or interacted with them. As museum professionals, we have a duty to honor these meanings and purposes to the best of our ability. A shift in thinking about objects, in considering them as living, is a good step in this direction.

  6. I also loved the way that Erdich personified sacred objects. I think it is a wonderful way to illustrate how cultural perspective affects the way that we view certain things. As you point out, this can be especially important in a museum setting where diverse audiences are interacting with objects of different cultural significance. With that in mind, I was unaware and very surprised to learn that NAGPRA doesn’t apply specifically to the Smithsonian. As they have such a large collection of Native American objects I hope that the rules created for them are just as strict (if not stricter) than those for institutions with smaller collections.

    1. My thoughts exactly, Anna! Though I think museums as a whole are getting better at looking at material culture from a more global perspective, the specter of eurocentrism still lingers in many institutions. Objects, particularly those for many Native American societies, do not always live happiest behind glass in an exhibit. Many need to be fed, and handled. Mikaela, your post did a wonderful job in exploring some of the differences in which different cultures view and handle material culture.

      1. I thought Kaitlin’s comment does a really good job of stating my reaction as well. I feel like the Smithsonian must have similar regulations placed on them but why it isn’t part of NAGPRA I still don’t quite understand.

  7. “The object is living, vibrant, it can make a collect call.” I really loved this part of your blog post. All museum objects can tell a story but for the Native American collections not only do they tell a story but they are living things. Like Kate I am also glad you were able to unpack this poem for us and put it into context of NAGPRA and “The Round House.” No curator wants to damage an object in his or her collection, but when it comes to Native American collection certain unusual measures must be practiced.

  8. I really like that you talk about NAGPRA in your post. While some of these issues are very disheartening, I’m glad that we are taking some strides to make up for our mistakes. Like others have said, I’m also appalled at the fact that the Smithsonian is not necessarily subject to NAGPRA’s guidelines. It’s frustrating to see that there are still exceptions, especially when we can see the damage of what happens for victims of rape in The Roundhouse. Hoping we can keep moving forward to create policies that are just for all people living on United States soil.

    1. It is interesting that the Smithsonian doesn’t have to abide by NAGRPA but they do have very similar regulations. In fact, they are so similar I still can’t quite tell what the difference is…

  9. Really great blog post. Enjoyed hearing the breakdown of NAGPRA, including the Smithsonian’s relationship with it which I was unaware of. NAGPRA was and is such an important document symbolically and in many cases in reality. We need more legislation in this area purely due to the great percentage of current Native American artifacts with a less than stellar provenance, to put it lightly. These artifacts are in museum collections, making care for them extremely important. I’m so glad you unpacked the poem, though I do also agree with the uncertainly on the sarcasm.

  10. Great blog post! Erdich’s poem does have the impression of something that start sincere and turn satirical by the end. However, unpacking the poem, as you have done, we see the reason why. Erdich makes the case the object is alive and to get that point across to certain audience members, the author uses the sarcasm to support her point. I also find it interesting the relationship between the Smithsonian and NAGPRA and glad you pointed this out.

  11. Wonderful post Mikaela; I loved how you contextualized the poem’s skillful personification of objects, in itself channeling much in the way of Native traditions, to the larger issue regarding the theft of this cultural heritage that took place over a century ago. It drives home the idea that in their social blindness and ignorance in heisting these artifacts, these scientists and these museums were not merely pillaging a culture; they were destroying the very personification of a people. Sacred objects that carried the souls, memories, and essence of their collective people and individual people. This is more than a material loss, but a continual void that reverberates down through generations. And for us in the field, in looking at a piece of legislation like NAGPRA, it is essential we do not merely see it as the return of misappropriated artifacts, but only the beginning of a larger process of understanding the larger, seismic effects of this cross-cultural interaction.

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