In May 2021, nearly eight months after the Seneca Nation made a formal request, the Buffalo History Museum returned the 200-year old Red Jacket Peace Medal to the Seneca Nation in a ceremony at the Onohsagwe:de’ Cultural Center. The medal is an object of cultural patrimony and a symbol of peace, friendship, and enduring relationships among the United States and the Six Nations. The petition for return was made by the Seneca Nation under the aegis of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). NAGPRA was passed in 1990 to provide a process for museums and federal agencies to return items such as human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, etc. to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Native Americans.
Buffalo History Museum Executive Director Melissa Brown with Seneca Nation President Matthew Pagels with the Red Jacket Peace Medal in a ceremony at the Onohsagwe:de’ Cultural Center
The Red Jacket Peace Medal
The Medal was awarded to Chief Red Jacket, the Seneca statesman, by President George Washington in 1792 as a symbol of peace between the Six Nations and the newly formed United States. It commemorated the discussions that eventually led to the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, one of the earliest treaties between a Native Nation and the United States.
The medal passed through Chief Red Jacket’s family and descendents including Colonel Ely S. Parker, secretary to General Ulyses S. Grant during the United States Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln was said to have held the medal the day before his assassination. Although the medal was the cultural patrimony of the Seneca Nation, it was acquired by the Buffalo History Museum in 1895.
The Buffalo History Museum
The Buffalo History Museum has been a collecting institution since 1862 and is one of the largest history museums in New York State with nearly half a million objects. “During the Civil War, Buffalo History Museum curators wanted to make sure that global history was being documented for the museum to serve as a wider educational function, ” said Melissa Brown, Executive Director of the Buffalo History Museum. It wasn’t until the 1920s and 30s that collecting shifted to focus more on local history.
Repatriation and Reconciliation
Dr. Joe Stahlman is the Director of the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum. In January 2020, then Seneca Nation President Rickey Armstrong reached out to Stahlman with the idea of repatriating the Red Jacket Medal. Stahlman reached out to the Seneca community for feedback. “I discussed the idea of the Seneca Nation doing this and no one had objections.” The Buffalo History Museum quickly responded to this request and immediately participated in the detailed procedure prescribed in NAGPRA to determine that the rights to the medal were not held by any other Native Nations. “We wanted to follow the federal process and we wanted to be sure that we were doing our due diligence,” said Brown. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the overall process, but the medal was formally returned to the Seneca Nation in early May.
The 200-year old Red Jacket Peace Medal
“For us, we don’t want to diminish anyone’s stewardship or their contemporary roles in our communities,” said Stahlman. “We simply want to reclaim what is rightfully Seneca.” Stahlman commended the Buffalo History Museum for their stewardship. “Museums do offer a service to all of humanity and I really do believe that, whether a native museum or a non native museum. That’s the role of museums and I appreciate it.” Stahlman described that these discussions between nations and museums are difficult because there are a lot of emotions and sensitivities on both sides. “But there has to be some kind of reconciliation,” said Stahlman. “One of the things we do in our culture is called polishing the chain.” An idea where two parties enter an engagement that ends in an agreement that is supposed to hold up over time. Stahlman explains that you have to “polish the chain” so not to forget. “We can’t let the chain get rusty from disuse. For millions of Native Peoples living within the boundaries of the United States, history is something that we are trying to keep alive and remind everyone else who has forgotten these commitments.”
The Treaty of Canandaigua established peace and friendship between the US and the Six Nations. It specifically acknowledged the lands of the Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, and Cayuga. In the treaty, the United States agreed never to claim nor to disturb any of the Six Nations living on the lands described in the treaties. Although relations between the United States government and the Six Nations have been strained and there have been violations of the treaty, the treaty has never been broken and is still actively recognized by the Six Nations and the United States governments.
Stahlman hopes that as museums continue to review their collections through the lens of NAGPRA, they will look closely at objects and work with Native Nations to determine if they are sacred or items of cultural patrimony. Stahlman explained that some items like the Red Jacket Peace Medal, fall into the realm of both spiritual and patrimony. “So it gets a little fuzzy on what is what.” Some institutions like the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) have taken the guidelines from NAGPRA and have adapted them to their own repatriation policy. NMAI lists five categories eligible for repatriation: human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, objects of cultural patrimony, and illegally acquired items. Moving forward, Stahlman would like to see more museums come forward with lists of potential items in their collection for repatriation. His advice to museums is to reach out to local Native Americans to establish a relationship and help identify what these objects are and what should be returned. NMAI works closely with Native peoples and communities on repatriation cases and proactively conducts casework to address items of cultural patrimony under its stewardship.
Despite identifying other objects at the Buffalo History Museum, the Seneca Nation does not want everything to leave the museum. “We don’t want everything, not because we don’t care, but some of it has to be out in the world. I mean that’s what a museum is,” said Stahlman. “The Buffalo History Museum should educate and inform everyone about the Western Region across time and across the landscape. Native peoples fall into that space and there should be objects that represent us within those collections so that people can be inquisitive and learn more about the places they live and visit and who lived there before them.”
Strengthening Relationships for the Future
“We have always struggled with maintaining, what I would describe as a relationship, with the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum,” said Brown. “I think we had a lot of transactional engagements that had nothing to do with repatriation, but if we were working on a Native American exhibit we might reach out for consultation, but I wouldn’t say it was necessarily a relationship.”
Brown’s goal moving forward is to establish a more meaningful relationship with the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum through partnerships and collaborations. “Whether it’s with the Native American community and repatriation or it’s just with the Native American community, we really need to engage both perspectives and how we share this history,” said Brown. “There’s a big difference from when I started working at the museum in how we always talked about how we told history. Now we’re definitely sharing the story through different experiences and perspectives. So I think this was a really solidifying and good first action.”
Stahlman wants to be sure that when sharing Native histories, those stories should not just be within the Euro-American viewpoint. “The conversation has to change and if we're talking about equity, then let’s talk about the subjects that we want to talk about.”
The Buffalo History Museum will continue to reassess its collection in order to ensure that any objects of cultural patrimony are rightfully returned. “I do expect there to be more...I wish if anything that I had prompted the conversation first.” Prior to the return of the Red Jacket Peace Medal, there were no conversations about it being an item of cultural patrimony. “That conversation had never happened, but then again no real conversations were happening. So I think that being proactive and making that time is important.” Brown hopes to ensure that the museum has a relationship with the Seneca Nation. “To do that work that we need to do right now –both with DEAI and sharing stories from multiple perspectives— we need to meet people where they’re at, which is really important.”
Brown stated that the repatriation of the Red Jacket Peace Medal represents a sign of friendship and connection between the museum and the Seneca Nation. “We plan to collaborate with the Seneca Nation for future exhibitions, programs, and events in order to ensure the legacy of Red Jacket.”
Stahlman wants to see more museums have these conversations. “When museums begin to think about protocols and policies, their next exhibits, and future steps, especially when thinking about how the pandemic has changed how they operate, this is the space where they have the opportunity to think about how to be more inclusive and not just with native folks.”