Angie Glasker ’05 strives to preserve Native American culture and history not just
for posterity but to help amend centuries-old injustices.
Story by KIM HILL & KACIE GRAVES ’16
What began as a small gathering in North Dakota grew into the largest assembly of
Native Americans in a century, joining with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in its protest
against the building of a 1,168-mile crude oil pipeline. Tribe officials, who have
sued the federal government, say the Dakota Access Pipeline violates a nearly 150-year-old
treaty, destroys sacred sites and threatens a river that’s a source of water for millions.
The issues at stake in the dispute, which began making headlines this summer, were
sadly familiar to Angie Glasker ’05. As an assistant curator for the Wisconsin Historical
Society, Glasker strives to preserve Native American culture and history not just for posterity but to help amend centuries-old injustices.
“I think we’ll see this kind of support — where tribes rally together to protect the
sovereignty and rights of another Native nation — more and more in the future,” says
Glasker of the Dakota pipeline protests. “We’ve already seen it on a smaller scale
several times in Wisconsin and the Great Lakes region in the face of proposed mines.”
On behalf of the Wisconsin Historical Society, Glasker administers federal grants
from the Native American Grace, Protection, and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The 1990
law requires institutions receiving federal funds to return Native American cultural
items to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated tribes.
Such items include funerary and sacred objects as well as human remains. Glasker says
her organization’s NAGPRA grant focuses specifically on the remains in the society’s
collections, which encompass the Wisconsin Historical Museum and 11 other historic
sites. These remains came to the society in a variety of ways — from efforts in the
early 20th century to save Wisconsin’s remaining burial mounds to burial sites excavated
during highway construction in years prior to NAGPRA.
“I help return human remains and their associated funerary objects to Wisconsin’s
Native nations,” says Glasker, who views NAGPRA as a human rights issue.
Some museums have a less-than-honorable history regarding procurement of Native objects,
she says. “Museums were taking advantage of the impoverished situations Native Americans
found themselves in. Anthropologists and archaeologists would go out to reservations
and pay very little or nothing for these artifacts.” In other cases, bodies would
be dug up and taken back to institutions for study. Though such practices were not
illegal prior to NAGPRA’s passage, they were not necessarily ethical, Glasker says.
“There is a very long history of mistreatment between Western institutions and Native
people, and NAGPRA exists as a way of addressing that mistreatment,” she states. “You
can never set it right, but I think you can create new relationships that are much
more positive than those in the past.”
Glasker was instrumental in negotiating an agreement among the Menominee, Potawatomi
and Ho-Chunk nations for repatriation of the remains of more than 300 ancestors. The
remains were buried in a communal area on Potawatomi land in southeastern Wisconsin
in a 2015 ceremony that Glasker attended.
“There was the same sense of somberness that goes along with any burial,” says Glasker,
“but there was also an incredible, palpable weight to returning these ancestors. There
was also a sense that all the difficult work on both sides, navigating sociocultural,
religious and political aspects, was worth it.”
Objects and meaning
Originally from the Galena, Ill., area, Glasker entered Illinois Wesleyan as an anthropology
major with plans to become an archaeologist. Professors Rebecca Gearhart Mafazy and
Chuck Springwood helped her determine exactly where her interests in anthropology,
religion and sociology could intersect.
For her senior honors research project in anthropology, Glasker used Wyoming’s Devils
Tower to illustrate tensions between Native American religious beliefs and the practices
of non-Native tourists. The Cheyenne, the Lakota, and several other Native peoples
have long, deeply rooted religious ties to the natural wonder, while non-Natives flock
to the national monument for spectacular views and climbing adventures. However, many
tribal groups feel this appropriation of Devils Tower by non-Natives is a violation
of a place they consider sacred.
At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Glasker began graduate studies in archeology,
but by her second semester realized “I was a cultural anthropologist at heart, and
Rebecca and Chuck had co-opted me into their world,” she says with a laugh. While
pursuing her master’s degree in anthropology with a certificate in museum studies,
Glasker worked part-time at Milwaukee’s Harley-Davidson Museum, processing incoming
artifacts, helping curators locate items and fielding research requests.
She continues these tasks in her position at the Wisconsin Historical Museum — cataloging
new acquisitions, responding to research requests and helping develop Native American
exhibits. “Every day I’m surrounded by a religion and culture that is not my own,”
she says. “Illinois Wesleyan and the education I received there helped prepare me
She believes she is using her IWU degree “for a very good thing by educating people”
and by “helping Native nations reclaim a broad spectrum of sacred objects, things
that have more meaning to those peoples than they could ever have to us as non-Natives.”
That reclamation, she adds, extends beyond physical objects to the meaning of things
that have been appropriated by non-Native cultures such as Native American headdresses,
or war bonnets, worn by sports teams’ mascots.
Glasker concedes the difficulty of shifting public perceptions on such hot-button
issues but believes public education is a good starting point. The Wisconsin Historical
Museum dedicates an entire floor to Native American exhibits, which Glasker oversees.
“This is a way of teaching other people about another culture that’s very much alive.”
While Glasker is hopeful such lessons have a lasting impact, incidents such as the
Dakota Access Pipeline protests illustrate that progress is not guaranteed. Despite
requirements that culturally significant, sacred or burial sites be left undisturbed,
a Standing Rock burial site and a ceremonial site with prayer rings were destroyed
this fall by pipeline construction crews, “adding to an incredibly long history of
similar destruction,” she says.
“That should not have happened, both ethically and legally. I can’t really wrap my
brain around willfully destroying burials and sacred objects or sites. I wholeheartedly
hope that the Standing Rock are successful. And, maybe something positive will come
from all of this in that more people will become aware of the threats to their sovereignty
that Native people still face today.”