Will Germany Repatriate Native American Scalps?

Karl May Museum, Radebeul, Germany Photo: Immanuel Giel via Wikimedia Commons

Native American tribes have requested the repatriation of 17 scalps displayed in the Karl May Museum in Radebeul, Germany, Hyperallergic reports.

The request has exposed the contrasting viewpoints concerning the use of human remains as museum artifacts. Melissa Eddy reported in the New York Times that “The tussles over ownership of the scalps have come to reflect a broader cultural clash between the changing mores surrounding the care and repatriation of human remains in the United States and the fascination of many Germans with the mythology of the American West.”

According to the German Museum Association’s guidelines, scalps are defined as “fashioned trophies from the heads of killed enemies” and are not categorized as items “acquired in a context of injustice.” In contrast the display of scalps in American museums has been illegal since 1990.

Cecil Pavlat, spokesman for the Ojibwe Nation highlighted the continued improper treatment of indigenous remains by museums and stressed the spiritual importance of proper internment. “I really don’t understand how another being can hold parts of another human hostage without knowing that it’s offensive and inappropriate and unacceptable,” she said.

Two previous repatriation attempts have failed. However, the US Embassy in Berlin has subsequently gotten involved after receiving a letter from the Arapaho-Cheyenne Tribes from Oklahoma. In June, an agreement was reached between the Karl May Museum and tribal representatives—the scalps will be returned depending on if the tribes can prove the provenance of the scalps, which are believed to be from several different groups.


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