Drawing Together: Comics and the Return of Museum Collections to White Earth Nation
Posted October 3, 2022
Topics: American Indian HistoryMuseum Collections

By Jen Shannon, Program Manager & Curator, National Museum of the American Indian

Earlier this year, the manuscripts department of the Ohio History Connection received a very interesting research request regarding the Warren King Moorehead papers (MSS 106). One of the preeminent American archaeologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Warren K. Moorehead (1866-1939) was named the first curator of the Ohio State Archaeological & Historical Society (today the Ohio History Connection), and served from 1894 to 1897. Aside from his archaeological work in Ohio and elsewhere in the country, Moorehead also concerned himself with contemporary Indian policies of the United States. In 1909, while serving on the U.S. Board of Indian Commissioners, Moorehead led an investigation at White Earth Nation in Minnesota. Documentation of this investigation make up part of Moorehead’s papers located in the Ohio History Connection Archives & Library. The White Earth material is what brought today’s blog author to the archives and we are pleased to have the Warren King Moorehead papers be part of this interesting and important project associated with the Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

On January 4, 2019, Jaime Arsenault, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of White Earth Nation in Minnesota, contacted me. “I have stories!” she wrote. This was in response to a conference presentation about NAGPRA Comics that invited tribal members to get in touch about their experiences with repatriation. I co-produce NAGPRA Comics with Sonya Atalay and John Swogger. NAGPRA Comics is a community-directed, collaboratively produced comic series that tells true stories about repatriation from tribal perspectives. We have since worked with Jaime to develop a new comic that includes the story of a repatriation of a birch bark scroll to White Earth Nation from the Andover Peabody Institute of Archaeology and the repatriation of a drum from the Berkshire Museum.

It was important to Jaime that we explain the period of time when these repatriated items were taken from their community. During this time, Jaime explains, many treasured items left White Earth in different ways, and “all under duress.”  The scroll at Andover, for instance, was a gift for safekeeping during difficult times, and a collector took the drum at the Berkshire Museum. This story is also important because it shows how museums can help each other in support of Native communities and their claims.

In the museum world, we often hear that Native American items were collected “under duress.” This repatriation story helps us to understand what that really means. For White Earth, it was a time of displacement and I only tell a brief story here, so stay tuned for the full story that will be available free at the NAGPRA Comics website.

In 2017, the Peabody repatriated the birch bark scroll to the White Earth Nation under NAGPRA. Warren Moorehead brought the scroll to the Peabody while he was the director there and placed it on display. Later, it was placed in a box on a shelf in collections. We learned that the scroll had been gifted to Moorehead for his role investigating land theft at White Earth Nation.

Moorehead wrote about “The White Earth Scandal” in his book titled The American Indian in the United States: Period 1850-1914. He based his writings on testimonies he recorded in over 100 affidavits during his 1909 trip to White Earth. He served as an Indian Commissioner charged with investigating non-Natives’ rampant land theft and deceit of reservation residents. He sat and listened as community members told him of their experiences and describes “shocking” testimonies like when a non-Native man threatened a woman with jail if she did not sell her allotment/trust patent; another man stole three land patents from a woman and fled her home before she could stop him due to her “crippled condition” (p81).

Moorehead also gave us a glimpse beyond the formal testimonies when he noted of White Earth community members that “they have a keen sense of humor, they laugh and joke among themselves. I desire to vary the monotony of this recital of wrongs and sufferings, by illustrating a few incidents... one of the officials happened at this moment to stretch and yawn. One of the old Indians immediately laughed and said something which caused the other Indians to shout with merriment. The interpreter turned to me and said, "Mah-een-gonce says, that that is the first white man he has seen to open his mouth and a lie did not hop out" (p94).

Moorehead collected two kinds of affidavits: recordings of testimony by individuals, and affirmations that the individuals were from the tribe, like this one.

Warren K. Moorehead Papers, MSS 106, Ohio History Connection

Moorehead also took photographs, now held at the Peabody, to document his investigation. Staff at the Peabody scanned the photographs and shared with White Earth Nation. They bear witness to the tragedy and the commission, showing images of people gathering to give testimony as well as military tents where reservation residents were living, displaced from their rightful lands and homes and suffering from disease.

“Tents for dispossessed Ojibwa at White Earth Reservation, Minnesota. Three tents in a row. Each tent is marked with 'US ID' on the side” (2010.0.136). Image courtesy of the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology at Phillips Academy, Andover, MA. The White Earth Band of Minnesota Chippewa are the cultural authority for the image.

“Dispossessed Ojibwa in tents at White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. People appear to be sitting around a table in the middle tent” (2010.0.134). Image courtesy of the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology at Phillips Academy, Andover, MA. The White Earth Band of Minnesota Chippewa are the cultural authority for the image.

“Dispossessed Ojibwa family sitting outside of a tent. White Earth Reservation, Minnesota, 1909” (2010.0.124). Image courtesy of the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology at Phillips Academy, Andover, MA. The White Earth Band of Minnesota Chippewa are the cultural authority for the image.

“People in a courtyard at White Earth Reservation, Minnesota” (2009.0.911). Image courtesy of the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology at Phillips Academy, Andover, MA. The White Earth Band of Minnesota Chippewa are the cultural authority for the image.

“18 Ojibwa men standing outside a building at White Earth Reservation, Minnesota. 1909. Labeled as 'Indians who came to testify about losing their lands - A part of the Indian Council.'” (2010.0.82). Image courtesy of the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology at Phillips Academy, Andover, MA. The White Earth Band of Minnesota Chippewa are the cultural authority for the image.


“Mr. Moorehead’s report [documents]… the greatest Indian land fraud in the history of the country, amounting to more than $40,000,000 has been revealed...hundreds upon hundreds of lawsuits are being instituted by the government to recover for the Indians the lands of which they have been cheated by White men. But this tardy move toward justice is too late to prevent the deaths and the terrible diseases which have been aggravated among the Indians by the grinding poverty to which this wholesale theft during the past ten years has subjected them…’the case of the Chippewa or Ojibways, on White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota, is by far the worst on any Indian reservation in the country,’ says J. Weston Allen, the Boston lawyer who accompanied Prof. Moorehead… ”

- The Phillipian newspaper, Feb 28, 1912



When Jaime presented Moorehead’s images to the Berkshire Museum, they were considered evidence to constitute duress in support White Earth’s claim for repatriation. The museum then decided to repatriate a drum collected during this same time-period.

When we started writing this story, White Earth Nation had the repatriated items and Moorehead’s photographs. I went looking for Moorehead’s affidavits to include first person perspectives on these difficult times in the comic so that when White Earth Nation members read the issue they would hear their relatives in their own words describing their experiences. That brought us to The Ohio History Connection and their collection of Moorehead’s papers.

Digital copies of these documents that bear witness, in community members’ own words, to colonial oppression and hard times are now residing at the reservation. In response to our request and offer of funds to have the affidavits scanned and shared with White Earth Nation Tribal Archives through Jaime, the Ohio History Connection agreed to do so for free because the materials were being returned home and under control of the originating tribe. Jaime as the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer determines what is appropriate from these archives to share publicly in the comic. In this way, we are following the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials.

Our work with Jaime to tell a story about repatriation ended up enabling one more return, bringing the material culture, images, and voices of community members together in one place and back home. That will also be part of the story in this comic.

Another lesson we learn in this issue is that when seeking repatriation from museum collections, it is good to think beyond the items alone and to ask for the return of associated documentation, as held in the museum and elsewhere. Many thanks to Jaime and the Andover and Berkshire museum staff that she invited into this storytelling project with us, and to Ohio History Connection for facilitating another meaningful return to White Earth Nation.

NAGPRA Comics draft pages, a work in progress. Courtesy of artist John Swogger.

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