Stolen artefacts in Glasgow museums - including items taken from Wounded Knee massacre - set to be returned

Artefacts in Glasgow’s museum collection taken from the site of a massacre of hundreds of Native Americans in 1890 are set to be returned to their descendants.

Items, including a pair of moccasins and a necklace, were taken after the Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota, USA. They were sold or donated to Glasgow by George Crager, the interpreter for performers at the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show in Dennistoun.

The city has received a request for the repatriation of the artefacts as well as bronzes looted from Nigeria and a ceremonial sword stolen from India. Councillors will be asked to agree to returning items at a meeting on Thursday.

Councillor David McDonald, the chairman of Glasgow Life, which manages the museums, said: “The city is proud of its museums and the world class collection of art and artefacts that they house. But we are also rightly aware that some items came into our ownership in ways that are not acceptable.

“Around the world, museums are recognising their obligations to address legacies of colonialism that saw the theft and looting of cultural items from their homeland and rightful owners.”

Nearly 300 Lakota people were killed by soldiers of the United States Army near Wounded Knee Creek on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota, in 1890.

Glasgow City Council made £275,000 from the properties.

Some of the 25 items in Glasgow’s collection were taken from the site by Mr Crager without the “free, prior and informed consent of individuals, families or Native Nations from whom they were taken”, a council report stated. Mr Crager was the interpreter for Lakota performers at the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show in Dennistoun in 1892.

The request for repatriation has been made by the descendants of the late Marcella LeBeau, a Lakota elder, politician, nurse and military veteran who died at the age of 102 last year. The family is representing the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Sioux Tribe, council officials have said.

Ms LeBeau led the campaign for the return of the ‘Ghost Dance Shirt’ from Kelvingrove Museum in 1998. The shirt, sacred to Native Americans, is believed to have been worn by a Sioux warrior killed during the massacre.

The estimated cost of repatriation of the items is between £30,000 and £40,000. It is proposed the council agrees a level of financial contribution would be decided by officials after engagement with the claimants.

A request for 17 Benin bronzes was received from Professor Abba Isa Tijani, director of the National Commission of Museums and Monuments of Nigeria, acting on behalf of the Oba of Benin, in January.

Bronzes were taken from the ancestral altars at the Royal Court of Benin during an invasion by British forces in 1897. The ones in Glasgow’s collection were acquired as gifts or from auction houses.

The council report stated the objects were used in ancestor worship until the invasion and many are “still needed for these purposes today.”

Discussions are to take place over the future use of the collection, including on the most cost-effective way to repatriate the items. Return transit is expected to cost around £30,000.

Legal title could be transferred to Nigeria’s national commission but the artefacts remain on loan to Glasgow’s museums until transit is requested or becomes practicable, the council report added.

Jaspreet Singh Sukhija, first secretary of trade at the High Commission of India in London, has requested the return of several antiquities from Kanpur, Gwalior and Bihar and a 14th century ceremonial sword (tulwar) and scabbard from the Deccan. He made the request on behalf of the Government of India and Archaeological Services India.

The council report added: “Six of the artefacts were stolen by the donors from Hindu temples and shrines in different states in India during the 19th century, while the seventh was illegally purchased as a result of theft from the owner, sold and smuggled out of India.”

The Indian Government has agreed to meet the full cost of the return of the artefacts. A meeting with the Archaeological Survey of India this month will consider logistical issues including export licences and potential costs.

Councillor McDonald, who will bring the requests for repatriation to the city administration committee on Thursday, is not standing for re-election in May.

He said: “Following the establishment of a working group, councillors from all parties have been discussing Glasgow’s approach to the decolonisation of our museums and the reparation of cultural items.

“This work has helped lead to the recommendations to return these items of cultural and religious importance to Nigeria, India and to the Cheyenne River and Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribes.

“While this will be my final committee paper to council, it should be just the start for the council in delivering cultural justice and the decolonisation of our museums.”

As well as the repatriation of artefacts, eight half-hull shipbuilder’s design models, gifted to Glasgow by Alexander Hall & Co of Aberdeen in 1881, are set to be transferred to Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum.

They were part of the 1881 Naval and Marine Exhibition in Glasgow but haven’t been displayed in the city in the last 10 years. The Aberdeen museum has offered a nineteenth century display model of a Clyde-built Scotia as a transfer.

A ship’s bell and honours panel from HMS Glasgow, gifted by the Royal Navy in 2005, are expected to be returned. The Type-42 destroyer, built by Swan Hunter on the Tyne in the 1970s, was decommissioned in 2005.

The items were gifted to the city chambers but are currently in storage. A new HMS Glasgow, a Type-26 frigate, will be commissioned in 2026 and the Royal Navy has asked if the bell and honours board could be used on the vessel.