Chief Rain in the Face, the waistcoat and a nation's demand for return of their history

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To visitors it is simply an old waistcoat that has been hanging among the relics of the Kelvingrove art gallery in Glasgow for the last 100 years. But to the surviving members of the Lakota people, once known as the Sioux, it represents a vital link to their history and they would like it back.

The colourful buckskin and cotton tunic used to belong to Rain in the Face, one of the most feared and respected Native American warriors of the late 19th century, credited with killing General George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876.

The museum has received a formal request from Rain in the Face's grand-daughter, Marcella LeBeau, for its return.

"Marcella's family have often talked about this waistcoat and it means a lot to her and her people," said Lewis Ballentine, acting on behalf of the 79-year-old grandmother.

"There is a direct line of descendancy - Marcella is a Tookettle and is related to Rain in the Face, a Hunkpapa, on her mother's side.

"They are all Lakota people and should not be called Sioux - a derogatory term invented by the white man which means Snake in the Grass."

Ms LeBeau's request comes a year after a delegation from Glasgow City Council returned the Ghost Dance Shirt, a sacred relic from the Massacre of Wounded Knee. Once again, the Council must consider whether it is prepared to lose another valuable piece from its collection.

Although the Government says it will not return items acquired from other countries, notably the Elgin Marbles, several museums continue to receive requests of this kind and are having to look closely at how they came by the objects.

Jane Weeks, of Resource: the Council for Museums, Archives and Galleries, said: "In the last 10 years there has been a great change in the way that museums approach these claims. There is no doubt that 50 years ago we had a very colonial view on this: 'It's ours and we're keeping it'. But now we appreciate that certain objects have a greater meaning and should sometimes be returned."

Rain in the Face's ceremonial waistcoat was among Native American items sold to the city by George Crager, a member of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. The council must now determine whether Crager acquired the objects legally or whether he stole them, which would strengthen Ms LeBeau's claim for their return.

John Lynch, the chairman of Glasgow Repatriation Committee, which has to resolve the issue, said: "The Lakota did not even know the Ghost Dance Shirt was here until a lawyer from Atlanta came here on holiday and saw it in a museum. He told the Lakota that they should have it back and when Marcella came to discuss that, she saw the waistcoat.

"Rain in the Face was still alive by the time we were given it so we have to try and discover whether he gave it to Crager or perhaps traded something for it or whether it was stolen."

In many cases like this it is up to the museum holding the artefact to decide whether it wishes to return it but the national museums are bound by law not to give things back in case it opens the floodgates of similar requests.

The official Government line is that it is important and positive for British heritage to be as widely available as possible and they would not ask for anything back from another country.

"There is no question of us ever insisting that all the Turners or all the Chippendales should be returned to us. Likewise for works in this country which came from elsewhere, like the Elgin Marbles, our position is that they were legally acquired and the Government has no desire or requirement to return them," said a DCMS spokesman yesterday.

Many of the disputed items were acquired during colonial times and since Britain has rarely been invaded there is very little of significance that has gone abroad.

Lewis Ballentine said the return of the waistcoat would not lead to hundreds more requests. "We certainly don't believe that everything should go back but when it is something significant like this and there is a direct link with the family, and there may even still be people alive who remember Rain in the Face, then it should be returned," he said.

Ms Weeks said: "It is impossible to say how much will end up going back but I don't think it will be that much because it is only things that have a special meaning."

John Lynch also believes that repatriation will remain the exception rather than the rule.

"Most museums would argue rightly that unless there are special reasons for returning an object they are better off in a museum where they can be looked after and used as an educational tool."

Maurice Davies, of the Museums Association, said all museums needed to re-examine the issue of how they had amassed their collections.

"Perhaps if one of the national museums was forced to return a piece of looted Nazi art that will open up the whole issue and they may look again at some of the other artefacts in their keeping."

Ms LeBeau, who lives in South Dakota, must wait until the end of June to find out if her quest will succeed.