Whose Culture Is It, Anyway? The Long Journey of the Stockbridge Bible

There are also many examples of ethical dilemmas surrounding the very act of collection and preservation under these circumstances. For one, many Indian tribes consider it sacrilegious to display sacred objects in a non-religious context, for example in a museum exhibit (Wolfe and Mibach). In addition, some Native American objects, such as the War Gods of the Zuni tribe, were created so that they would naturally disintegrate after a period of time (Cooper). Museum curators who took extreme measures to preserve these objects were acting against the wishes of their creators.

In general, the legal treatment of Native American items had improved during the 1980s as a result of several cases decided by the Supreme Court or through settlement. Also, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed during the latter stages of negotiations between the Trustees and the tribe. Although this new law did not require the Trustees to return the Bible (it only affected institutions who received federal money), it did help create “a new awareness that many museums had inappropriately obtained Indian items” (Siemers 2007, Wilkinson)

But after years of back-and-forth correspondence and the occasional threat of legal action the dispute between the tribe and the Trustees had still not made much progress. It would seem that all the tribe had to do was question the legality of the original sale to free the Trustees from their trust responsibility to Choate. It is unlikely the museum would try to deny that the Bible had belonged to the Stockbridge tribe. Surprisingly, it does not appear that they did this.

The original letter sent to the Trustees by Tribal Council Chairman Leonard Miller does claim an “illegal” transaction, but it seems this argument was soon forgotten. (Siemers 2009) Later on in the mid-1980s, the Trustees invited the tribe to Massachusetts to bring forth any evidence they had proving their ownership. Whether this was an honest goodwill gesture or an attempt to size up the opposition before a potential lawsuit remains to be seen. The tribe did not reply to this offer, but they did draft up a response. They put together a list of sources showing that the Indians once owned the Bible, but did not mention that the original sale may not have been legal (Siemers 2009).

Some of this confusion is likely due to the fact that the tribal attorney Kim Vele had even more pressing cases on her plate at the same time. She was also fighting to prevent the Wolf River Batholith, a large landform on the Stockbridge reservation, from becoming a federal nuclear waste repository site (Siemers 2009).

Even if the tribe might have been able to devise a more effective legal strategy, they decided to pursue other means instead. They soon formed a Bible Recovery Committee, a move that turned out to be a masterstroke. The committee was charged with bringing the issue to individuals and organizations who might sympathize with the tribe’s cause. An eclectic group including “anthropologists, folk singers, and …the people of Stockbridge” wrote to the Trustees in support of the tribe (Guthrie). A letter sent by Ted Brasser, an anthropologist working at the Museum of Man in Canada, was particularly eloquent, and also illustrates many of the cultural themes at stake:

In my training as an anthropologist, I have been admonished never to collect, or support the collecting of ethnographic objects that are still considered as important symbols of cultural identity and historical continuity by the ethnic group in question. This is particularly true where it involves the religious emotions of the people who own or use these objects. Working in a museum I am acquainted with the problems created by over-eager amateur collectors.
It may strike you as rather odd to treat an eighteenth-century Bible in an ethnographic context. However, it will be obvious to everybody learning the dramatic history of the Stockbridge Indians that this Bible was their Covenant’s Ark during the many years of bitter hardship. Holding on to this Bible these people survived the brutalities of the old American frontiers as staunch Christians. In addition, and in spite of repeated betrayal by newcomers, the Stockbridges volunteered and fought for your ancestors in the American War of Independence, at a disastrous loss of human life to the tribe. It was around this Bible that the survivors gathered and moved west, to make way for your ancestors. Viewed in this perspective it is clear that this Bible to the Stockbridges is more than merely a valuable antique piece. (Siemers 2009)

The tribe had to know now that they were in the driver’s seat. Tribal attorney Vele recalled how earlier on in the negotiations the Trustees evaded her questions and failed to provide clear answers. It was as though they were hoping the Indians would eventually stop arguing and that the whole thing would just blow over. But the actions and outreach of the Bible Recovery Committee had changed all that. It must have been clear to the Trustees that any legal battle would bring a lot of bad publicity—just the type of thing that would dry up donations. The decisive move occurred when newly elected Tribal Chairman Reggie Miller wrote a letter in May of 1987 expressing his intent to take the case to court if nothing was resolved by the summer. A meeting was quickly set up. After the two sides sat down and talked in Massachusetts, the tribe was said to believe the Trustees were now “looking for a method to return the Bibles without creating for themselves a legal problem under their Trust responsibility.” (Siemers 2007)

The parties took the matter to the Essex Probate and Family Court in Massachusetts, where Justice William Highgast authorized the transfer to the tribe in a three-page written judgment, releasing the Trustees from all other claims and liabilities relating to the Bible. The judgment does not, however, answer any of the intriguing questions of ownership, instead concluding that the Bible could “best continue to serve as both relic and interpretive aid” if it was returned to the tribe. It also says that the Bible “was acquired and given in good faith to the Trustees,” when it was originally sold. The judgment quotes the original inscription that gave the Bible to the Stockbridge tribe and its future generations, but this appears as background information and no conclusions are made regarding the implications of the inscription.

Was the legal obligation of the trust responsibility the only issue at play here? If it were, the 15 year time period it took to resolve the case seems ludicrous. Taking a closer look at the judgment, though, some familiar themes emerge.

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  1. So nice news for bible. I’m very impressed on this news. I like this so much. And I’m very interested to know more about this bible.

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