According to The Oregonian, a collector named Elizabeth Cole Butler acquired the bundles from dealers of Native antiquities, beginning in 1970 and continuing through 1990. Butler donated all of them to the Portland Art Museum.
In Crow culture, a medicine bundle is a container made of animal skin that may contain any number of small sacred items — for example beads, shells, seeds, wood, feathers and arrowheads. “They’re profoundly sacred objects, each unique to an individual,” Donald Urquhart, the Portland Art Museum‘s director of collections and exhibitions, told The Oregonian. He added that the contents “could be related to burial, ceremony and hunting.”
The personal nature of Crow medicine bundles provides an interesting twist in this particular repatriation story: The museum had long offered to return them to the Tribe. The medicine bundles were on a list of objects that the museum furnished the Tribe as dictated by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), but in 1993 John Pretty-on-Top, the Crow representative, said that the items “would not be of interest to the tribe as a whole since bundles are exclusively owned by individuals,” according to Department of Interior records.
This stands in marked contrast to the recent struggles we’ve seen over Hopi Katsinam that are periodically auctioned in Paris over the Tribe’s objections. Katsinam are not owned by anyone, the Hopi argue, therefore nobody has the right to buy or sell them.
The museum says that it plans to repatriate the medicine bags to the Crow Nation in Montana in September.