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Faculty Spotlight: Gordon Ambrosino, NAGPRA Coordinator

As a landscape archaeologist and art historian, Gordon Ambrosino’s research centers on the agency of art in constructing place-based histories at specific times, and across time. At Auburn University, Ambrosino is responsible for facilitating consultations with Native representatives through NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) regarding the University’s collections, and for coordinating the repatriation of ancestral remains to descendant communities.

Would you please tell us about yourself and your academic/career path to Auburn? 
I am originally from the Chicago area. I did my undergraduate studies at Northern Arizona University (NAU). After graduating, I returned to Chicago when I accepted a position as a collections manager and repatriation specialist at the Field Museum where I conducted archival research and disseminated collections information to Tribes as part of the repatriation process. My work there laid the foundation for my doctoral research, which focused on a large complex of rock art in the highland Andes of Peru. In 2017, after competing my PhD, I returned to the U.S. when I took a postdoctoral position at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where I served as the point person for the Museum’s domestic repatriation consultations with Tribes in addition to curating exhibitions. I came to Auburn in August 2020 to take my current position as the NAGPRA coordinator because it was a great opportunity to apply my experiences in working in repatriation, while developing my research interests in a region I had relatively little experience working in prior.

How did you first become interested in your field of research/study?
My research interests follow two seemingly unrelated paths. On the one hand, I am interested in the interrelations between past and present peoples, landscapes, and art. On the other hand, I am interested in decolonizing practices, primarily through repatriation. Ever since I was a child, I have always been curious about the ways in which people relate to and construct their landscapes. I first developed concrete interests in landscape archaeology midway through my undergraduate studies in Chicago. It was at this time I decided to move out west because I wanted to cultivate a better understanding of how art links living people to the land. As part of my program at NAU, I studied for a period in Australia where I was fortunate to spend time with and learn from Indigenous Aboriginal communities. It was through this experience I came to really understand first-hand the impacts of colonialism and how Indigenous art can solidify ancestral relations to the land. It was through my later work as a repatriation specialist at the Field Museum that I developed a clearer understanding of the how the inseparable links of people to their lands is embodied and transmitted through art, and how the repatriation process aids in reestablishing these links, which were broken when people’s ancestors and their artifacts were brought to museums. I applied these lessons to my PhD research which was centered on the role of rock art in constructing place-based histories in the Andes over a period of approximately 3,800 years. This experience, in turn, formed the basis for my main postdoctoral project at LACMA, a museum exhibition that is focused on the Bears Ears National Monument and which is co-curated with cultural leaders with whom I developed enduring friendships and professional relationships through our prior collaborative NAGPRA work at the Field Museum.

What does a typical day looks like for you?
My primary responsibility here at Auburn is to help ensure that the University remains in compliance with Federal law as defined under NAGPRA. To do this, I facilitate dialogues between the Tribal communities to which our collections pertain, and I report information about our collections to both the Tribes and Federal entities. This requires that I spend a lot of time emailing and making phone calls to bring all appropriate people to the table. Proper reporting and dissemination of information about the collection, requires a lot of research and documentation. In this regard, the majority of what I do here at AU consists of curatorial work. On a typical day, I spend a good amount of time doing archival research and linking things like field notes and drawings, past correspondence, field reports, and publications to Auburn’s collections so that I can understand issues of provenience (where an object or Ancestor was recovered from and where it passed hands before coming here) and cultural affiliation, which is a crucial requirement for repatriation. I often consult with my colleague here at Auburn, Dr. Meghan Buchanan, who is an expert in the archaeology of the region and who is well-integrated and respected in both academic and Tribal communities of Alabama. In addition to research, I spend much time inventorying and documenting the collections because a large percentage of the materials here at Auburn have not been registered and for something to be repatriated, it needs to first be reported to the National Park Service, which requires a proper inventory. Beyond facilitating meetings and conducting research, I spend a lot of time designing and implementing preventative conservation strategies and ensuring that our collections follow recommended traditional care protocols, which refers to how people’s ancestors and their belongings are cared for in accordance with the desires of our Native consultants and partners. I also teach an anthropology course here at AU, so a good portion of my NAGPRA work transfers to, and informs, my lectures and teaching strategies.

Why is it important to establish relationships with Native American tribes who have artifacts found in our region?
It is vitally important for any institution that holds Native American artifacts or human remains to develop healthy relationships with the appropriate descendant communities. Collections in museums and in universities often have complex and painful histories of how they were amassed. As a result, archaeological collections are frequently considered legacies of past colonial practices. Compounding this problem is the fact that Native Americans have traditionally been sidelined in discussions regarding the curation, display, and research of museum collections. This is true in the Southeast where Tribes have had difficulty participating in these dialogues due in large part to their forceable removal from the region through the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Establishing harmonious relationships with Tribes whose artifacts and remains of their ancestors helps to redress, but will not completely resolve, some of these painful histories for many reasons. Firstly, NAGPRA is not simply just about returning applicable items back to people. The spirit of the law is designed so that conversations between Tribes and institutions can go beyond one-time engagements of simply giving things back, to develop long-terms relations that integrate and include diverse perspectives that have traditionally been overlooked or ignored altogether. These discussions, and the relationships that grow from them, foster diverse perspectives of museum collections that not only enrich our understanding of the past but help in the production of scientific knowledge. Specifically for Auburn, because NAGPRA is inherently oriented towards equity, our repatriation efforts through NAGPRA align with greater institutional initiatives of diversity and inclusion and can potentially lay the groundwork for future collaborations and acts of recognition, such as a land acknowledgment.

What are some of the challenges and benefits in repatriating people’s artifacts and ancestors?
Although repatriation through NAGPRA is extremely rewarding work, it does come with its complicated aspects. As I mentioned earlier, determining what is referred to as cultural affiliation (that is drawing accurate cultural connections to living peoples, artifacts, and human remains) is central to re-uniting our collections with descendants. Although oftentimes different Tribal communities want the same things at the end of the day, separate Tribes can have competing claims for items and these claims frequently revolve around this issue of cultural affiliation. Mediating competing claims requires much understanding, knowledge of when to not get involved, and of course solid documentation on the collections. Additionally, since we are dealing with the physical remains of people’s ancestors, repatriation is often very sensitive work. Learning about the circumstances under which collections were amassed can be painful for people in that knowledge of how people and things were acquired can dredge up generational trauma. Navigating these delicate issues requires a lot of understanding, experience, and cross-cultural training. Further complicating these issues is the fact that information pertaining to collections is often sparse, or in some cases, non-existent. The work of an archaeologist is to reconstruct the past and reconstructing how artifacts and ancestors came to be in museum collections is very much part of the job.

Although these complexities are inherent in this type of work, repatriation through NAGPRA is probably the most personally rewarding work I have ever done. In addition to reconstructing the past, repatriation is vital for people’s ability to reconstruct their own histories and by extension, their identities. As Westerners we are often unaware of how damaging past collecting practices are to people’s connections to their own pasts. Repatriation under NAGPRA is an important mechanism for helping people to connect with their ancestors, and in doing so, provides a pathway for people to recuperate their connections to their people and their land. In essence, repatriation is an important component of decolonizing museum collections in that it provides a platform for voices that have been traditionally sidelined to be heard and that it develops positive and healthy relationships between Tribes and institutions, two groups that have traditionally been on opposite ends of power dynamics in the United States.

What are your ultimate goals as NAGPRA coordinator?
In very general terms, my overarching goal is to do what is right. What I mean by that, more specifically, is I want to ensure that the correct Ancestors and their belongings are repatriated to the correct people, and in a timely and efficient manner to keep the University in compliance with the law. Following this simple guideline will lay the foundation for other hopes that I have, which are to develop meaningful relationships with our Tribal partners (both personally and for AU) that could potentially generate collaborative research opportunities that would link with my areas of interest. I’ve been fortunate to build enduring and healthy professional friendships with cultural leaders from my prior repatriation work, primarily in the U.S. Southwest and Alaska, and I hope to do the same here with the original inhabitants of Alabama and the Southeast.

What do you like to do in your free time?
When I’m not cooped-up in the laboratory or office, I really like doing anything outdoors and I take every opportunity to go hiking, biking, kayaking, or bird watching. When I’m indoors, I enjoy doing yoga and architectural design, a career path I would have chosen in an alternate reality.

What do you like most about Auburn, so far?
What’s not to like? In terms of the University, I really appreciate its commitment to diversity and inclusion, which is fundamental to repatriation work. It is not uncommon for institutions to be opposed to repatriation for several reasons, some of which include reluctance to transfer control of collections (even though they may be obligated by law) and a fear that repatriating will produce negative press. I haven’t found these attitudes to exist here. In fact, it has been quite the opposite. Everyone with whom I have spoken with at Auburn believes in the merit of this work and they seem genuinely interested, if not excited, for the University to develop relations with the Tribes who are connected to our collections. In terms of the city and its surrounds, I really like Auburn’s progressive attitude, the diversity and quality of the food, the people, and of course, the birds.

Tags: Faculty Research Sociology Anthropology and Social Work Anthropology

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