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A museum in Massachusetts has returned some of the objects in its collection to their rightful owners—members of the Lakota Sioux.

A man and woman pose for a photo on either side of a mannequin wearing a war shirt, leggings, and mocassins, with lighting equipment to one side.

Elizabeth Martin, Barre Library Association

Jeff Not Help Him and Leola One Feather, archivists from Pine Ridge Reservation, an Oglala Lakota reservation in South Dakota, pose with items that have been displayed at the Founders Museum but will now be returned to the Lakota Sioux. Jeff Not Help Him believes that the shirt may be linked to members of his family.

A museum in Massachusetts has returned some of the objects in its collection to their rightful owners—members of the Lakota Sioux. The objects were taken from the Lakota Sioux more than 100 years ago. 

On November 5, officials at the Founders Museum held a repatriation (return) ceremony with members of the Lakota Sioux who had traveled to Massachusetts to receive the artifacts. Some of the artifacts are connected to the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, in which the U.S. military killed between 250 and 300 members of the Lakota Sioux in South Dakota. 

Some of the objects that were returned to the Lakota Sioux are thought to have been stolen at the site of the massacre. Shortly after, a man named Frank Root, who ran a traveling show, made money showing the objects to the public. Root later donated the objects to the Founders Museum, which has had them ever since. 

Many of the people who attended the ceremony said their ancestors had passed the memories of Wounded Knee down to them. Knowing that museums were displaying objects stolen from their ancestors only added to their pain. That’s why return of the objects was extremely important.

Wendell Yellow Bull, a member of the Oglala Lakota, grew up hearing stories about his ancestor, Joseph Horn Cloud, who was at Wounded Knee. Yellow Bull told the Boston Globe that the return was “the beginning of healing.”

Elizabeth Martin, Barre Library Association

Jeff Not Help Him and Leola One Feather watch as a photo is taken of a ghost shirt, which the Lakota Sioux people believe to have spiritual powers.

The Founders Museum is one of many museums and universities that have objects connected to American Indian history in their collections. A 1990 U.S. law requires that public institutions (which are funded by the government) return such objects to their rightful owners. But progress has been slow. Many American Indians have worked for decades to get their objects back. 

“For us to bring back these artifacts, that’s a step towards healing,” said Surrounded Bear, who had ancestors who died at Wounded Knee. “That’s a step in the right direction.”

Find out more about Wounded Knee and efforts to preserve the site where it happened.

Did You Know?

An aerial view of mountains covered in grass and trees with a body of water in the background

© wollertz/

The Black Hills

In 1868, the Sioux signed a treaty with the U.S. government stating that the Black Hills of South Dakota would become a reservation for the Sioux. But when gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874, the U.S. broke the agreement and allowed white miners into the area. Since then, the Sioux have been working to get their land back.

Who Do These Things Belong To?

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images; Philip Pikart (CC BY-SA 3.0); Dan Kitwood/Getty Images; © Bruce Whittingham/

Museums are filled with artifacts that tell the stories of cultures from around the world. But who do those objects really belong to?

It all comes down to how the artifacts ended up at the museums in the first place. Sometimes, art and other objects that we can see at museums were donated by the people who made them, or by their families. But not always. Some museum artifacts were looted, or stolen, from the people who made them. This has happened during wars, for example, when people from a conquering nation stole from the people they were conquering. 

That doesn’t mean anyone at the museum stole the objects—or even knows the objects were stolen. Often, objects are donated to museums with no explanation. It’s not always easy to trace the journey an object takes from its home country to a museum. Still, some museum officials recognize that it’s not right, or respectful, for the museums to own these objects. 

Recently, people from many different countries have filed claims, demanding the repatriation of their cultural artifacts. Repatriation means returning something to its country or culture of origin.  Many museums have been resistant to repatriation. Some don’t want to break up their collections. Others see returning these objects as admitting that their country did something terrible in the past—for example, looting objects from another culture. But more and more museums are repatriating artifacts. And, very slowly, objects are returning to where they came from.

Working For Change

A woman sits at a table and speaks into a microphone.

Larry French/Getty Images for SiriusXM

Suzan Shown Harjo is an activist who has worked to change the way artifacts are collected and displayed. 

You can read more about Harjo at Britannica School.






: a valuable object that is owned by a family for many years and passed from one generation to another

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