Julian Spalding on Glasgow's return of the Sioux Ghost Dance shirt: Is restitution always right?

Political considerations, not humane motives or conservation considerations, were behind the Glasgow Museums’ recent return of the Sioux artefact, says former director


On 29 December 1890, nearly 300 Sioux, mostly women and children, were shot dead at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. They were wearing “Ghost Dance” shirts that they believed would deflect any bullets fired at them, drive the white man away from their lands for ever and cause the buffalo to return to the plains.

Less than a year later, on 19 December 1891, Glasgow Museums were offered one of the shirts as a gift which they accepted without question. Now, just over a century after the tragedy, Glasgow City Council have decided to return the shirt to the Wounded Knee Survivors Association (The Art Newspaper, No.88, January 1999, p.1).

Museum are increasingly beset with repatriation claims, as societies and former owners seek the return of their heritage from the imperial treasure houses of the West. Glasgow’s decision is being heralded by some as an exemplary way of handling such requests. Superficially, it appears a clear cut case of justice, but, examined more closely, it emerges as an example of the political revision of history and the diminution of a museum’s social role.

How had Glasgow come to acquire such an extraordinary object in the first place? It was a chance of geography. Glasgow, as the most western European port, was the last stop of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show before it set sail back to America. Already, in 1891, the “Battle of Wounded Knee” had its place on the programme of entertainments, enhanced by participation of Sioux warriors and the use of original objects from the battle. Some of the latter had been collected by George Crager, an interpreter who was travelling with the circus and who had visited Wounded Knee sometime after the massacre to collect trophies.

Crager was keen to sell his collection before he returned to America and he persuaded Glasgow Museums to buy a selection of key items for the then considerable sum of £12,000. When this was agreed, he decided to “dispose” (his word) of other Indian relics in his collection, allowing the museum to take its pick. Among them was a tunic that Crager claimed was a “Ghost Dance” shirt taken from a warrior shot at Wounded Knee.

In view of the importance of his claim for the shirt, it is difficult to understand why Crager had not tried to sell it as a key item rather than part of a selection of giveaway objects. Evidence suggests that Crager was something of a sharp operator; he is known to have lied about a personal injury for his own advantage. Recent suggestions that he gave, out of respect for the memory of the dead warrior, the shirt have been shown to have no basis in fact and attribute feelings and intentions to him that appear not only to be uncharacteristic, but also a century before their time. The most likely inference is that the shirt was not what he said it was.

When I first saw the shirt, after I became director of the Glasgow Museums in 1989, I doubted its authenticity. I have never been able to identify anything on it that looks remotely like a bullet hole, let alone a blood stain. Contemporary photographs show that the bodies were left to freeze, in horrific contortions, in the snow. To remove the clothing would not have been easy. The aged, but essentially immaculate, garment that Crager gave Glasgow shows no signs of having been pulled off a frozen, bloodstained corpse.

Members of the Lakota American Indian tribe objected strongly to any scientific tests being undertaken on the putative blood of their ancestors. When a scientific examination was eventually carried out, after I had left the museum, no trace of blood could be found. In my view, this only strengthened the case the tunic had never been used as a “Ghost Dance” shirt at Wounded Knee. However, the tests did not prove that there had never been any blood on the shirt and that a small tear could not have been a bullet-hole, so that museum and the Lakota could take this evidence as inconclusive and, therefore, irrelevant. However, all the press coverage, even learned journals like The Art Newspaper, continue to refer to the shirt as actually having bullet-holes and being bloodstained. War torn or not, the shirt is, nonetheless, a very interesting item. Together with Glasgow’s other exceptional Native American collections, it gave the museum the idea to stage a major exhibition telling the story of what happened to the indigenous peoples after Columbus’s “discovery” of America in 1492. “Home of the brave”, as the show was ironically called, was Glasgow’s contribution to the quincentenary. It was this exhibition that brought the “Ghost Dance” shirt to the attention of the contemporary Lakota Sioux who then started their campaign for the shirt’s “return”.

Many press reports subsequently painted Glasgow Museums as perpetrating the same imperialistic ignorance of and contempt for other cultures that had led to the massacre at Wounded Knee a century before. In once instance, it was even claimed that the Lakota had “discovered” the shirt lying unrecognised in the museum’s stores.

At first, Glasgow’s aims appeared to be in harmony: both the Lakota and we wanted to raise awareness about the massacre at Wounded Knee. But it quickly became apparent that our reasons for doing so were very different. The Lakota wanted to use the shirt to help them re-establish their cultural rights. For them this meant repossessing it and burying it. We wanted to use the shirt as a focus for understanding, which meant preserving it for generations to come. So Glasgow Museums said no to the request for the shirt’s “return”, but not as a matter of principle. We had already given back the bones of Australian Aboriginal people to their descendents. They had made a powerful case that these had been robbed from graves in 1898, and they wished to rebury them. They said they knew who the deceased were. The bones were in boxes in our store and we could not anticipate using them in an exhibition. I was disappointed, however, to learn a year later that these remains had not been reburied in the graves from which they had been stolen, but had been given to the National Museum at Canberra where they were lying in boxes in their stores. The negotiations turned out not to have been primarily about concern for the ancestors, but about raising awareness of Aboriginal rights. The motive behind the negotiations was political, not humane.

Museums are part of an international community and have a shared responsibility for caring for the past. When we repatriated the Aboriginal remains, we accepted the argument that they should not be in a museum anywhere, although that is where they have ended up.

This experience made me rather cynical about repatriation claims. If all the shoes taken from the victims of the Holocaust had been buried out of respect for the fate of their one-time owners, the Holocaust Museum in Washington would have been deprived of one of its most memorable and cogent exhibits.

A museum’s job is to increase understanding of the past by using material remains. It is failing not only it own duty, but its fellow professionals, if it does not make the case as strongly as it can for the retention in the public sector of the artefacts that increase such understanding. In the case of the Glasgow shirt, I felt that, because of its history, if we had agreed to its burial, even if it were not directly connected with Wounded Knee, we would have lost the chance to spread knowledge of an act of genocide.

The situation remained unresolved for some years, until the Lakota representatives changed tack and told us that, instead of burying the shirt, they were going to build a museum to house it, although they could not say when or how. What did emerge was that they were requesting the repatriation of other, authenticated “Ghost Dance” shirts from American museums at the same time. Would Glasgow’s “Ghost Dance” shirt add anything to their display, especially in view of its questionable provenance?

Meanwhile, political pressure was building in Glasgow for the return of the shirt. The museums are run by the City Council and therefore are directly accountable to politicians. When the Lakota first made their request in 1992, the committee were happy to leave it as a professional decision.

By 1998, the political situation had changed. Devolution was a reality and several councillors were now standing for seats in the new Scottish Parliament. The arguments about the “Ghost Dance” shirt had already attracted national and international attention. By returning the “Ghost Dance” shirt, Glasgow councillors could be seen to be identifying with the oppressed against the oppressor, which in Scotland means the English. Comparisons were drawn between the Lakota and the Celts. A speech was even made specifically in Gaelic supporting the “return” of the shirt.

Historically, this was rather ironic. Some of the white men in the Seventh Cavalry who mowed down the Sioux at Wounded Knee would almost certainly have been descendents, or, if you want to put it that way, “survivors” of the Highland Clearances that drove so many Scots to settle in America. But I had, by now, no voice in this discussion. In the summer of 1998, my post, along with ten other directorships in the City, was abolished and I had had to resign. Glasgow Museums were left without a director at this crucial stage in the proceedings.

After my resignation, the process of “repatriation” was taken out of the professional domain and became a political decision. A public consultation was initiated, although I do not know how one can get a real cross-section of opinion about such an issue. It did, however, ensure maximum publicity. The audience heard members of the Wounded Knee Survivors Association make a series of pleas that the return of this shirt would in some way right the wrongs that had been done to their people. Mark O’Neill, the head of curatorial services, then put Glasgow Museums’ case, very elegantly arguing that possession cannot be an absolute value.

Nobody could argue with this. But the “Ghost Dance” shirt is not only about the Lakota. It is also about American settlers, about a turning point in history, and, more generally, about the way contemporary moral values have developed a sense of regret about past injustices. The Lakota do not own the shirt’s meaning. That belongs to us all.

At the Woplia Tonka—a great thanksgiving—that was held in South Dakota over the last weekend of July this year, a questionable relic solemnly passed from one set of politicians to another, both doing their utmost to use the occasion to promote their people’s identities. Back in Glasgow, visitors to the museum will be left forever trying to grasp the significance of a modern replica of a “Ghost Dance” shirt, which bears not even those signs of age or wear and tear that enabled George Crager to make the claim that it had been torn from the body of a bullet-ridden, blood-soaked Sioux warrior at Wounded Knee.

Tacked onto the end of a line of genuine “Ghost Dance” shirts in the future Museum of Wounded Knee, the Glasgow shirt will hardly add a footnote to each visitor’s understanding. Prized in Glasgow, it could have made generations of future visitors aware of a tragedy that European values helped to forge and also quickly to transform into entertainment.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Bury the truth at Wounded Knee'