MELISSA BLOCK, host:
More than 200 sacred artifacts have been returned to the Yurok Indian tribe in Northern California. It's one of the largest repatriations of Native American artifacts in U.S. history. The Smithsonian Institution returned necklaces, headdresses, and other ceremonial regalia that had been in the museum's collection for nearly 100 years.
Thomas O'Rourke is chairman of the Yurok Tribe. He joins me from Klamath, California.
Mr. O'Rourke, congratulations. This must be a great day for you.
Mr. THOMAS O'ROURKE (Chairman, Yurok Tribe): Yes, it is a wonderful day. It is exciting. It is an emotional day.
BLOCK: An emotional day. Why don't you describe that emotion, to have these artifacts back?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Emotional means, you know, today, to best explain it, that words can't explain how we feel and how I feel in particular. I could say good, but it's more than good. That today when I thought about it, I cried. And that's what they mean to us. They are key to our existence, to carrying on our traditions and our culture, dances that we have taken part in for - since time immemorial.
BLOCK: And you're saying that these artifacts would be a key part of those dances that you're talking about?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Yes, they are. That they are prayer items and that they are very hard to come by. Some of the items are hundreds of years old, made by our ancestors.
BLOCK: How was it that these pieces ended up with the Smithsonian Institution?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Well, the Smithsonian, these were brought in from New York, Museum of American Indian, where they were housed previously. How that they were separated from our tribal people? I believe that some of them were bought. Some of them were taken. I can't rightly tell you how they all left our people.
BLOCK: And has it been a long process to try to get them back?
Mr. O'ROURKE: We have been in negotiations for six years for these items, and part of what took so much time was to determine which items belonged to our tribe and which items belonged to our neighboring tribes. That our dances are very similar, and the regalia is very similar. And so that was a slow, long process to have these items separated out.
BLOCK: Would there be some things that you would say, you know, it's valuable for them to be in a museum where other people can see them and learn about our tribe and its traditions?
Mr. O'ROURKE: I believe that if people want to learn about our tribe, they should come visit us. We don't put our children on display in a case. We don't put our elders or our priests on display in a case. That's what these things mean to us. They're not something to look at. They are something that were made for doing a specific purpose in our world.
BLOCK: Well, I gather there is a celebration today there in Klamath to celebrate the return of these artifacts. What are you doing?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Yes, there is. And the best way that I could explain it is like the homecoming of prisoners of war. These items are very much alive. They have been stored away and kept away in dark places without hearing their native tongue, their native language, which they understand.
Our old people said, when they were taken away from us, that they cried, that they weep. Today is a day to celebrate, very much like you would celebrate the homecoming of prisoners of war, and so that that our elders will gather. It's a joyous day here amongst our people. That many people are coming here to welcome these items home. We will sing songs. We'll pray. We'll talk. And we will wake them up because in two weeks our renewal dances start, and so that we will prepare the items to dance. So they will dance this year.
BLOCK: Well, Mr. O'Rourke, it's been great talking with you. Thanks so much for taking the time.
Mr. O'ROURKE: All right, thank you, ma'am. You have a good day.
BLOCK: Thomas O'Rourke is the chairman of the Yurok Tribe in Northern California. He spoke with us from Klamath.
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