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Ohio museum repays Nez Perce Tribe $600,000 for artifact collection

Nez Perce Tribe bag made to resemble a deer head
Nez Perce National Historical Park’s Visitor Center
This bag made of hide dates back to between 1836 and 1845. It was made to resemble a deer's head and was used by a man to hold personal items.

An Ohio history museum is reimbursing the Nez Perce Tribe after forcing it to pay for a collection of its own artifacts more than two decades ago.

In 1996, the Nez Perce Tribe raised $608,100 to buy back 21 artifacts crafted by its people in the 1800s from the Ohio Historical Society, which has since changed its name to Ohio History Connection.

Under different leadership, it had previously loaned the collection to the National Park Service on a yearly basis, but the tribe said the museum demanded the items back abruptly in 1993.

After celebrating the 25th anniversary of the collection’s return to Idaho this summer and renaming it the Wetxuuwíitin Collection, the museum repaid the tribe last week.

“We are pleased to see this wrong corrected,” said Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee Chairman Samuel Penny.

“These items are priceless. Though we did not agree with having to purchase these items back in 1996, we knew at that time we had to bring them home regardless of the cost,” Penny said.

Wetxuuwíitin means, “Something that has been returned. [It] went away and then returned from a distance or a journey,” according to Nakia Williamson, the tribe’s cultural resources program director.

Burt Logan, executive director and CEO of Ohio History Connection, said he and other leaders at the museum weren’t aware of the sale in the 90s until he received an invitation from the tribe to the anniversary celebration.

“If the Wetxuuwíitin Collection was in the possession of the Ohio History Connection today, we would freely return these items to their rightful home,” Logan said.

“We just appreciate them seeing that there was, in our eyes, an injustice for us having to repurchase those items," Penny said.

Missionary Henry Spaulding traded these artifacts for supplies with a supporter in Ohio after he arrived in the area in the 1830s and 1840s, which eventually ended up with Ohio History Connection.

The artifacts include clothing, saddles and a bag shaped like a deer’s head.

They incorporate traditional beadwork and materials, but Williamson told Washington State University about how some items used metals from European settlers.

For example, a quirt made out of elk horn that was used by horse riders has a metal quill nib at the end of one of its straps.

“One might see it as a decoration, but also, I think it was also kind of indicative of that change that was coming,” said Williamson, foreshadowing the takeover of indigenous lands by White settlers.

The traditional materials, he said, represent his people’s past. Using new, more modern elements was “the acknowledgement of the new ways and technologies, education, western education, that was also sought out by our people to bring and to enhance our lives, understanding that that was going to play a role in our long-term viability.”

The Wetxuuwíitin Collection is currently on-loan to the Nez Perce National Historical Park.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio

I cover politics and a bit of everything else for Boise State Public Radio. Outside of public meetings, you can find me fly fishing, making cool things out of leather or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season. If you have a tip, please get in touch!