Bixby Library Considers Repatriation For Native American Artifacts

Sep 28, 2015

Volunteers at the Bixby Memorial Library in Vergennes are nearing the end of a two year project to document all of the artifacts in the library’s museum.

Many of items are Native American artifacts and some may need to be returned to the tribes they came from.

The museum is on the second floor of the Bixby Library, in a locked room. Inside are glass cases, and drawers and drawers of artifacts.

"We have a good amount of pottery, we have a ton of lithics. We have a case of textiles over there. The room is somewhat divided. This is the large archeological collection. These five cases comprise the Bilhuber collection," said archeologist Kat Raynor.

The collection was given to the library in 1968 by amateur archeologist Ernst Bilhuber. It includes items from tribes in western states, Alaska and Mexico.

A few years ago one of those items was stolen.

"What was taken was described as a spearhead, an obsidian spear head," explained library director Jane Spencer. "When the police came, and asked us about it, we didn’t know, we had no photograph, no accurate description and realized, we need to take an inventory of everything that in this room."

The spearhead was eventually found, and turned out to be a replica, but the thousands of other items in the room are real and valuable. In addition to the Bilhuber collection, there are many Native American artifacts from local towns. Spencer says for a small community, they were able to find a surprising number of locals with expertise to get the project started.

"When the police came, and asked us about it, we didn't know, we had no photograph, no accurate description and realized, we need to take an inventory of everything that in this room." - Bixby Director Jane Spencer

"It is amazing, an archeologist, a museum specialist, the former archeological editor at National Geographic," she said.

Volunteers have been weighing, measuring, photographing and creating a digital catalog of every item in the collection. They obtained a grant to hire an archeologist, Kat Raynor, to oversee the project.

Now that they know more about the collection, the next step is to consider which items fall under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The law says human remains, funeral or ceremonial object or objects of cultural patrimony have to be repatriated to their tribes.

Raynor says it's clear that some items will fall under the law. "We definitely know we have mortuary bowls which would be a funerary related object. We have a beautiful Sioux headdress in there from Wyoming that could potentially be considered an item for cultural patrimony. We do have one piece that we do believe to be a human remain, however, we don't have the technology to fully figure out if and who it belongs to, so that's high up on the list."

Some of the Bixby's artifacts, like this case of projectile points, come from local collections.
Credit Melody Bodette / VPR

The library will soon apply for a grant to research the objects, to determine what they are and most importantly -- where they came from. They'll look at comparative collections, talk to professors, and other larger institutions that have already been through the process. And tribes will be consulted, says volunteer and museum specialist Eileen Corcoran.

"Some tribes want them repatriated, want to have things back. Some tribes don't want things back at all," Corcoran said.  "Some tribes want to work with institutions to store items or to keep items certain ways. That becomes the process of working with these cultures to figure out after we know what's going on, what then happens to the items themselves."

"We don't have the capacity to fully care for these objects the way they should be cared for, in terms of all of the light coming through these windows. We don't have temperature control or humidity control and that's just not good for some of these objects." --Kat Raynor, archeologist

While the law may require some objects to be returned, Raynor says the library must consider whether some of the remaining items, like textiles, should be sent to other institutions.

"Regardless, we don't have the capacity to fully care for these objects the way they should be cared for, in terms of all of the light coming through these windows. We don’t have temperature control or humidity control and that's just not good for some of these objects," she said.

Many of the artifacts, including those from local collections will stay at the Bixby. Library Director Jane Spencer says with the help of an archeologist and volunteers the museum can soon create new exhibits and become an educational resource so it's no longer the best kept secret in town.