Martin E. Sullivan, who presided over the return of 12 sacred wampum belts to the Onondaga Indian Nation, walked on February 25.

Mark Gulezian/National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian

Martin E. Sullivan, who presided over the return of 12 sacred wampum belts to the Onondaga Indian Nation, walked on February 25.

Martin Sullivan, Who Led the Return of Sacred Wampum, Walks On

He may not have been Native American, but Martin Sullivan saw to the return of 12 sacred wampum belts to the Onondaga Indian Nation before it was required by law to do so. It was 1989 and he was the director of the New York State Museum in Albany, New York.

Sullivan passed away in his home February 25 in Piney Point, Maryland of kidney failure. He was 70. But it’s important to remember what he started with returning the sacred wampum.

It was a controversial agreement at a time when other museum executives were hesitant to confront the issue, Carole Huxley, the state’s deputy commissioner for cultural education at the time, told the Times Union.

“It was a very big deal, and it’s a law now. Not (just) here, but across the country,” Huxley, who first worked with Sullivan at the National Endowment for the Humanities, told the paper. “People in other museums didn’t want to have to think about it. Do we own these things? Did we not take them away from (these) people properly?”

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires museums and other federal agencies to return cultural items to tribal descendants, was enacted on November 16, 1990.

The Onondaga Nation website has a piece written by Chief Irving Powless Jr. from October 21, 1989—the day the 12 belts were delivered to the nation. Powless says in his accounting of that day that 600 people came to the longhouse for the arrival of the belts.

“Looking out the longhouse window, I could see the people surrounding the vans. The first of the 12 belts began its journey back into the longhouse. Each belt was covered in a case wrapped inside of white foam sheet. It was impossible to tell what belt it was,” Powless writes. “The wrappings were removed and the first belt was the Tadadaho belt. Soon all the belts were in view and everyone pressed forward for a better view.”

Powless also wrote: “I knew that this event would be remembered for a lifetime, especially [by] our white brothers who never had the opportunity to see the Round Dance before today.”

Sullivan was there for the return of the belts, to see what he started completed.

“There is increasing recognition that in addition to our primary duty of preserving and interpreting objects, we also have a related duty to help preserve and nurture the cultures from which those objects come,” Sullivan told the New York Times in August 1989.

“There’s always somebody that says, ‘I don’t want you to do this,’” Huxley told the Times Union. “And Marty would stand right up to them. He was very brave and very strong, and he never did things without thinking them through.”

Martin Edward Sullivan was born February 9, 1944 in Troy, New York. In 1965, he graduated from Siena College Loudonville, New York. He then went to the University of Notre Dame where he received a master’s degree in 1970 and a doctorate in 1974, both in American history.

Early in his career he worked for the National Endowment for the Humanities, then from 1983 to 1990 he was director of the New York State Museum in Albany, New York. From there he moved on to become the director of the Heard Museum of American Indian Art and History in Phoenix, Arizona, where he stayed for much of the 90s. From 1999 to 2008 he was chief executive of the Historic St. Mary’s City Museum in Maryland. Most recently, from 2008 to 2012, he served as the director of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

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