Much of the Morrison collection is stored in boxes. Emily Thabes said the items have been blessed by Indigenous members from the communities they were taken from. Credit: Mathew Holding Eagle III | MPR News

This story comes to you from MPR News through a partnership with Sahan Journal.

In addition to preserving the area’s rich history, the Beltrami County Historical Society may now be making it.

Recently a court granted the museum permission to break up arguably its most important collection—the John Morrison collection—so that culturally sensitive artifacts could be repatriated back to the Indigenous communities from where they originated.   

Emily Thabes is the society’s executive director. Sitting in the museum she gave an overview of the building’s own history.  

“We’re in the Great Northern Depot in Bemidji, Minnesota, so this was the last depot that was built by James J. Hill,” Thabes said. “It was built in 1913, so it’s 110 years old this year and this building was converted into the history center in 2000.”

Emily Thabes is executive director of The Beltrami County Historical Society. She said the old Great Northern Railroad Depot was turned into a museum in 2000. This year it will turn 110 years old. Credit: Mathew Holding Eagle III | MPR News

But it’s some of the items in the building which has focused her attention recently.  

A few years ago, a First Nations tribe in Canada sent the historical society a letter enquiring about a ceremonial water drum.

The museum no longer had the artifact, but it forced the staff to re-examine what was in their archives and in particular the John Morrison collection which contained about 2,000 artifacts from numerous tribes throughout the U.S. and Canada.

The collection also includes the largest number of Red Lake artifacts outside of the reservation. 

Morrison, who was half Native American, acquired much of his collection during the 1920s and 1930s, although many of the artifacts predate that. At the time, he owned the trading post in Ponemah on Red Lake. He later served as the local school’s first headmaster as well as the postmaster.

In the 1960s shortly before his death, Morrison donated his collection of artifacts to the historical society. It became the foundation of the museum itself. Morrison also recorded descriptions of some of the objects. 

Upon hearing of the Red Lake artifacts former Red Lake executive administrator, Thomas Cain Jr., had to see them for himself. He says it used to be that trading posts like Morrison’s sometimes took objects as surety for things people needed until people could pay, much like modern-day pawn shops. 

Red Lake Reservation encompasses nearly 800,000 acres across northern Minnesota with four primary communities; Red Lake, Redby, Little Rock and Ponemah. Credit: William Lager | MPR News

“The families were more than likely hungry for food. So that’s an example of how a lot of these artifacts end up where they do is through hunger, starvation, poverty,” Cain said. “You know, people got to eat every day.”

In Morrison’s recordings he describes how he came into possession of many of the artifacts, including some regalia. 

“The jacket was not originally a part of the costume. And I got that I think in 1920, along there I traded some of the Indians around there when I had the store,” he said in the recording. “The headdress I bought from a Catholic priest from the Pine Ridge Reservation (in South Dakota).” 

Among the objects in the collection were 150 to 200 objects protected under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act or NAGPRA.

Passed in 1990, the federal law protects human remains, funerary objects or objects of cultural patrimony. It applies to institutions that receive federal dollars, all except the Smithsonian Institution which follows different guidelines.  

According to Thabes, the Bemidji collection contained all of those kinds of items except human remains.  

“We’ve had these items for some time and of course the law has been in place for some time,” she said. “But the will that Mr. Morrison left regarding the items and how he wanted those items to be treated put restrictions on us about being able to follow NAGPRA guidelines.”

A note on this artifact carved out of bone lists it as an ice chipper. Not entirely sure, the author ended the note with a question mark. Credit: Mathew Holding Eagle III | MPR News

Basically, Morrison said the collection could not be broken up. 

Last year, after consulting with area tribal members, the historical society secured the help of a Twin Cities law firm and a consultant. And in an unprecedented move, with help from volunteers and the county, they successfully argued in court to amend the will, allowing the repatriation process to move forward. 

“We put forth the right argument regarding why we wanted to make the change,” Thabes recounted. “Because it’s a significant thing to not follow a will but it is a more significant thing not to follow the rights of Native American people.”

Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe member, Jim Jones Jr., is a NAGPRA expert. He served 22 years with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. As a former culture resource director, he’s been involved in countless repatriations. He says it’s uncommon to see an institution do what Beltrami County’s did. 

“The items that were identified were in fact sacred items. And so, the institution knowing what those items are, working with tribal communities realize that, ‘Hey, we shouldn’t have these, the right thing to do is to return them back to the tribal communities,’” Jones said. “It’s rare that you see something like that because if you don’t have a tribal community or you’re a private collection or private museum, there’s no law that mandates that you have to return those items.”  

Emily Thabes displays a hand-carved powder horn that is part of the John Morrison collection. Most of the pieces were gathered during the 1920s and 1930s while Morrison operated a trading post in Ponemah, Minnesota. Credit: Mathew Holding Eagle III | MPR News

Jones hopes other institutions follow Bemidji’s lead.   

Following NAGPRA guidelines the Beltrami County Historical Society created an inventory and sent letters summarizing the items to nine tribes they know are affected. However there may be others. The items will also be entered into an online registry with descriptions and photos when possible. 

Thabes said the organization now looks forward to whatever next steps develop. Personally, she says, she’s grateful how this experience has changed her worldview.  

“If this was my grandmother, right? This is literally pieces of my grandmother, that’s how I have to think about these things. Would I want her to be on display somewhere?” Thabes asked.

“No, of course not. Nobody wants that. So, if we think about things from our basic human needs, desires and instincts, because that’s where we all are. Then I think that helps to guide where we need to go.”   

Mathew Holding Eagle III is the Bemidji regional reporter for MPR News.