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The First Successful Repatriation


From spreading disease to forced assimilation, we hear so much about the damage white settlers caused for native peoples, but we hear less about the amazing resistance that Indigenous people engaged in. One form of resistance is survivance, which is defined by Gerald Vizenor as, “…an active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories, not a mere reaction, or a survivable name.” One form of survivance is repatriation, or the process of returning symbolic assets to a people or country.


The Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation made the first successful repatriation attempt in 1934, as they sought to reclaim a sacred medicine bundle of the Water Buster clan of the Hidatsa tribe. The Bundle contained relics that represented Thunder Birds – sky spirits that could send rain. It was after all, the 1930s, a period of great drought.


In 1934, twelve clan members signed a letter requesting that the Museum of the American Indian in New York return the Bundle. It took four years, but the museum eventually agreed, and they exchanged it on this date in 1938. The clan chose chiefs Drags Wolf and Foolish Bear to receive the Bundle along with Arthur Mandan as the interpreter. 


Even this small ceremony wasn’t easy. Photographers hassled Drags Wolf and Foolish Bear to get pictures of their regalia, and during the exchange ceremony, the bundle was uncovered, a faux pas that distressed the two chiefs. Eventually the ceremony concluded and the Bundle was shipped to Minot and celebrated at the reservation on January 21st.


There was no official repatriation legislation in the United States until 1990, so the exchange was a new stride in asserting native sovereignty. In 1999, Indian Country Today listed the repatriation as one of the most significant moments for Native people in the 20th century. And, by all accounts—from community members, to the weather service, to the newspapers—when the Bundle returned, the rain came.


Dakota Datebook written by Lucid Thomas



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