exhibition of flat twined bags from the Columbia River Plateau celebrates the
recovery and repatriation of a Nez Perce root storage bag that has been part of
the ethnographic collections at Oberlin College for more than 100 years.
The bag was originally collected in the 1840's by Henry Harmon Spalding,
a Presbyterian missionary to the Nez Perce, at the request of his friend, Dudley
Allen. It was one item among
several dozen Nez Perce artifacts that came to be known as the Spalding-Allen
Collection after they were donated to the former Oberlin College Museum in 1893.
Archival research suggests that the bag became separated from the other
Spalding-Allen material when it was loaned to another institution for a
temporary exhibition in 1894. Upon
its return to Oberlin, the bag was apparently misplaced among unrelated items
Oberlin College loaned the
remainder of the Spalding-Allen collection to the Ohio Historical Society for
safekeeping in 1942, and ultimately deeded the artifacts to that institution in
1979. Meanwhile, the Nez Perce tribe became aware of the collection in the late
1960s and arranged to borrow it from the Ohio Historical Society in 1979 for
display at the new Nez Perce National Historic Park in Spalding, Idaho. Over the
next 15 years, the tribe negotiated with the Ohio Historical Society to obtain
permanent control of the collection, and eventually purchased it from the OHS in
1995 for its “fair market value” of $608,100.
The Oberlin College Anthropology
Department became aware of the Spalding-Allen collection’s history several
years ago when Dr. Steven L. Grafe, then a doctoral candidate at the University
of New Mexico, asked Professor Linda Grimm to search the Department’s
ethnographic collections for items missing from Spalding’s original inventory.
This task was undertaken as a class project by a group of students who
quickly discovered the root bag intermixed with textiles from Southeast Africa. After subsequent archival and historical research
confirmed the bag’s connection to the Spalding-Allen collection, the
Anthropology Department decided to return the bag to the Nez Perce nation. The official repatriation of the bag will take place on April
27, 2002 during a campus symposium titled, “Closing
the Circle: Repatriation of a Nez Perce Flat Twined Bag”.