Tribe bidding farewell to Summers artifacts on May 23
By Danielle Frost
Smoke Signals staff writer
They are leaving.
After a year of being home for the first time in more than a century, 16 Tribal artifacts will return to a British Museum warehouse outside of London.
The coveted historic cultural items were temporarily returned to the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and showcased for the past year at the Chachalu Museum & Cultural Center’s “Rise of the Collectors” exhibit, which runs through Wednesday, May 22.
Historic Preservation Manager Briece Edwards estimates that more than 10,000 people from across the United States visited the exhibit this past year, including members from all nine federally recognized Oregon Tribes and from 12 Tribes outside the state.
“There is a personal connection for a lot of people,” Edwards said. “Having these cultural items here has meant a lot to the families connected to them.”
More than 200 of the Summers Collection items specific to the Grand Ronde Tribe remained in London. They were gathered by McMinnville-based Episcopal Rev. Robert Summers in the late 1870s from the first Native Americans to inhabit the Grand Ronde Reservation. Eventually, these were purchased from Summers by the Rev. Selwyn Freer, who donated all of the approximately 550 items collected by Summers to the British Museum in 1900.
The British Museum loan was the culmination of 20 years of perseverance by the Grand Ronde Tribe to either have the items returned or loaned, and might be the first loan from the museum to a Native American Tribe in the United States. A permanent return of the items requires an act of Parliament as the British Museum is resolute that any items it has belong to the people of England.
In December 2002, Tribal Council Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy and former Tribal Council member June Sell-Sherer traveled to London to view the items, which had been in storage for more than 100 years. Although they were told it would take a monumental effort to get the artifacts back to Grand Ronde, they persevered and 16 years later the items came home, albeit temporarily.
“It’s been a wonderful opportunity to have these at Chachalu and I am very proud of the work the Cultural Resources staff has done, not only for us, but so the world could see these,” Kennedy said. “My hope is that this is the beginning of a regular rotation and one day we can have them returned home or have a replication of the artifacts here.”
Edwards said that museum-to-museum relationships are becoming more common, but that not all cultural institutions are on the same level, so the fact that the British Museum trusted Chachalu staff to house and properly care for the items speaks volumes.
“It’s a sign of what parity and recognition can look like,” Edwards said. “Both institutions recognized and respected each other. It meant a lot. The British Museum is one of the most recognized museum names in the world.”
The seed was planted in the 1980s for an eventual Tribal museum, which first opened at the site of the former Willamina Middle School in 2014 after phase one remodeling was complete. Phase two included an extensive remodel of the library area, which was turned into a 4,000-square-foot gallery space and work areas, offices and a research library. It re-opened on June 1, 2018, to coincide with the beginning of the “Rise of the Collectors” exhibit.
The exhibit featured a purse, harpoon, rattle, seed fan, cooking tray, hunting cap, seed basket, cooking basket, horn bowl, dice, elk skull spoon, epaulettes, mat creaser, dentalium purse, horn spoon and adze handle, as well as woven items from the Kershaw Collection loaned to the Tribe by the Oregon Historical Society.
“We are not the only Tribe with a museum,” Edwards said. “Others are equally professional. We just happen to have this connection and our Tribal leaders took the initiative to pursue it. Our plans are to continue to have this relationship grow.”
Edwards doesn’t see ownership of the Summers items happening in the near future.
“We’re still in the same place we were a year ago,” he said. “English law doesn’t allow for a simple return of the items. I believe the intent now is to further our relationships with other loans.”
There is no date set for when the next installment will come to Chachalu. Edwards said it is an extremely expensive and time-consuming undertaking, so the Tribal museum will focus on other exhibits for the time being.
“It has been remarkable to see all of the people from all over the world who have come to this exhibit,” he said. “We had a couple from England who were just amazed at the long process these belongings had taken to come back home. It is a global moment playing out.”
However, Edwards said the best moments came when Tribal members visited the exhibit and spoke of their family connections.
“When an Elder comes down and shares how they are connected, that is an amazing moment,” he said.
Chachalu Manager and Tribal member Julie Brown was contemplative when asked her thoughts about the Summers Collection exhibit ending.
“Oh my, that’s a tough one,” she said. “My sister (Khani Schultz) and I were engaged in a display board in 2012 at Spirit Mountain Casino that highlighted the Summers Collection and we said very directly we wanted to get them back to Grand Ronde.
“Back then it was a dream to have it at some point in the future. Cheryle (Kennedy) and June (Sell-Sherer) were heavy hitters and put the first foot forward to develop that relationship. In doing so, we have had Summers come home. Hats off to them and the Elders of the time.”
Brown said the display at Spirit Mountain Casino was the first foray into bringing the Summers Collection to the attention of the public, not just Tribal members.
“From there, the negotiations continued and we have been successful as a Tribe,” she said. “There were many Elders who worked on this effort who are no longer here. There is a lot of sentiment and emotion for those belongings to be here. My mother, who passed before this exhibit came home, was one of those Elders.”
And what’s next at Chachalu? Brown is keeping that information close to the vest, but said there will likely be a soft opening in late June for a new exhibit.
“We will be letting the community know more details well in advance,” she said. “What I can say is that it will be significant and we do have a featured artist at the exhibit.”
The new exhibit will be the first of three planned within a year.
“We want to do three change outs,” Brown said. “The Summers Collection was here for year by special agreement, but we are also trying to provide the community with something new on a regular basis.”