Under the shade of mature hardwoods
the Nez Perce Tribe ceremonially renamed a collection of its artifacts that spent more than a century in museum storage rooms thousands of miles away.
LAPWEI, IDAHO – The Spalding-Allen Collection has been on display at the Nez Perce Historical Park, Spalding Site, for decades, but the return of the tribal artifacts, the high price paid by the tribe, and its eventual renaming June 26 marked the end of a long journey that began in the 1840s.
The morning celebration started with a horse parade around the Park, followed by songs and drumming.
Allen Pinkham, Sr. served as the master of ceremonies and Nez Perce Tribal Council Chairman Sam Penney greeted the more than 200 gathered, a mix of tribal members and friends supporting the official repatriation of the collection. The Lord’s Prayer was read in English and Nez Perce by Rosa Yearout while Julia Davis-Wheeler interpreted the prayer in sign language.
The culminating event was the unveiling of the poster commemorating the collection’s renaming. Covered in a blanket until the announcement, Nakia Williamson, cultural resources program director for the Nez Perce Tribe, explained how the new name reflected the collection’s long journey from Idaho to Ohio and back.
What was once known at the Spalding-Allen Collection is now called Wetxuuwi’itin’, meaning “returned home after a period of captivity.” Williamson said the artifacts named themselves based on their characteristics.
“They went on a long trip,” Williamson said. “Now the collection is returning home.”
The welcoming home theme continued as the group Waap qah qun followed Williamson’s presentation with an honor song normally sung when warriors return from battle.
Among the Wetxuuwi’itin’ collection is a baby board, a bracelet, basket hats, moccasins, beaded hide dresses and men’s leggings, a saddle, a buffalo rope, an elk quirt or riding whip, a horsehair bridle, a bag from a deer’s head and a bag made of corn husk and hemp.
Williamson said the items are special because they represent the tribe’s law and way of life.
“They are not just adornment,” he said.
As most of the items are made from shells, bone and hide, they also represent the Tribe’s connection to the land and the animals.
The collection’s long journey from obscurity back home began when Bill Holm, curator of the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, read correspondence between Presbyterian Missionary Henry Spalding, who originally collected the artifacts, and Dr. Dudley Allen, to whom Spalding had them shipped. Based on these letters Holm had an idea that the collection was somewhere in Ohio.
According to Julie Kane, one of the renaming event coordinators, Holm also knew Allen’s son had donated the items to Oberlin College, so he followed the trail.
Kane said, “He was the one that was curious enough to actually go out there and search for the items.”
Holm’s trail led him to the Ohio Historical Connection where the collection was on loan from Oberlin, yet stored in a basement. He informed the curator at the Nez Perce National Historical Park of the collection’s whereabouts and, after some negotiations, the items were loaned to the Park and housed in specially built display cases.
In 1993 the Ohio Historical Connection wanted the items permanently returned, claiming they had a “fiduciary responsibility to their patrons to either keep or sell them at a ‘fair market value’”. The tribe ended up paying $608,100 for 21 items which neither Oberlin nor the Ohio Historical Connection ever paid for or displayed.
According to the event brochure, in 1995 the Tribe hired Tom Hudson, an economic development strategist, to help raise funds for the purchase of the artifacts. Hudson was able to appeal to donors from all over the world to contribute. Two days ahead of the deadline, the goal of raising more than a half million dollars was reached.
Trevor Bond, associate dean of the Digital Initiatives and Special Collections at Washington State University, detailed the collection’s history in his 2017 PhD dissertation. In 2021 he revised it into the book, “Coming Home to Nez Perce Country: The Niimíipuu Campaign to Repatriate Their Exploited Heritage”.
Penney wrote in his open letter published in the event brochure that the Tribe anticipates Nez Perce artists will incorporate the collection’s designs into their own artwork. “We hope that this will be the legacy of this collection – to keep being reborn and adapted by every generation to come so it remains relevant to them.”
By Angelika Ursula Dietrich