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.
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.  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.” 
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.  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.”  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.
 National Parks Service, National NAGPRA site. Accessed April 4, 2016. https://www.nps.gov/nagpra/
 Erdrich, Heid, “Guidelines for the Treatment of Sacred Objects.” National Monuments, (Michigan State University Press, 2008): 4-6.
 Erdrich, Louise. The Round House. (New York, NY: Harper, 2012), 41.
 Ibid., 40-41.
North Dakota Landscape, http://bit.ly/1oBzWeF
Native American artifacts in museum display courtesy of Deadwood History, Inc.