Grave Reservations

The Colorado Historical Society has collected Indian artifacts for 120 years. Now it has to give many of them back.

On his deathbed in 1880, the great Ute chief Ouray instructed a protege named Buckskin Charlie to stay with the Utes and help lead the tribe through the difficult times ahead. It was a lousy last request. The Utes, seeking a permanent place to call their own in Colorado, were facing a hostile white populace. "[We] regard them as a menace, a source of danger, an impediment to the opening of the best lands in the state," Governor F.W. Pitkin told reporters at the time. "The Ute," he concluded, "must go."

But Buckskin Charlie stayed, and though his legacy is mixed--he urged members of what would become the Southern Ute tribe to turn away from their traditional ways and learn to read and write and farm like the whites--he became a critical figure in Ute history. "His role was a peacekeeping one, keeping the people from going to war with the U.S. government," recalls Alden Naranjo, a Southern Ute living in Ignacio.

Buckskin Charlie, a husky, stern-looking man, died in 1936. As he drew his final breaths, he instructed that one of his long ceremonial headdresses of dipped eagle feathers and beads be donated to a white friend. Over the following years, the item was passed down between friends and family members. In 1961 a woman donated it to the Colorado Historical Society, which placed the headdress on display at the society's Ute Indian Museum in Montrose, where it remains today.

That's the historical society's version of events, at least. The Utes are skeptical.

"My people didn't give things like that away," Naranjo points out. "The headdress is the mark of who the owner is, a symbol like the white man's throne or crown. It's important that we get something like this back, to show we have not given into the U.S. government's mainstream of society, that we are still a sovereign people."

In November 1990 Congress passed the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act--NAGPRA. The law is enormously complex but essentially calls for the return of all Indian human remains, sacred objects and important cultural icons to their proper, modern-day descendants. Although the law is now nearly seven years old, because of NAGPRA's labyrinth of paperwork requirements, its effects are just beginning to be felt by local museums.

Early this year the Southern Ute, citing the act, asked that Buckskin Charlie's headdress be returned. Tribal representatives contended that Buckskin Charlie was central to the history of the tribe. Recovering the symbol of his leadership, they stressed, was of crucial importance to the Ute; the society had no right to the headdress. The historical society, however, has resisted.

"The Colorado Historical Society is just what its name says: It's an elite society," complains Naranjo. "I can't talk to these people."

Roger Echo-Hawk, who is charged with overseeing the society's return of tribal relics, says that "negotiations are ongoing" with the Southern Utes.

Anxious discussions between tribes and the traditional repositories of Native American antiquities are certain to become more common. As a result of NAGPRA, archivists in museums and universities across the country are re-evaluating their Indian artifacts in anticipation of giving many of them back. Every Native American human remain in the Colorado Historical Society's vast collection, for instance, is to be returned to its descendants.

That includes everything from Object E.1748.1--"A scalp taken from the head of an Indian warrior at the Battle of Sand Creek, Colorado, November 29, 1864" (donated by Mrs. Jacob Downing in 1911, who probably inherited it from her husband, Major Downing, a leader of the massacre)--to Object OAHP.90, an "American Indian cranium" recovered by the Northglenn Police Department "at 11701 North Washington on November 2, 1993." In all, some 600 remains and funerary objects--items found in graves--in the historical society's collection, divided between several locations across the state, are available for tribes willing to claim them.

Next year Mesa Verde National Monument, home to one of the largest repositories of Native American remains in the country, will rebury its entire collection: 450 individual skeletons, 3,000 incomplete skeletons and 3,000 objects found buried with the Indian remains, which are mostly of Pueblo descent. The bones and artifacts will be reinterred at a secret location.

Bones are not the only items eligible for repatriation. Six weeks ago the Denver Museum of Natural History returned a ceremonial hat to a tribe in Alaska. Last fall the Denver Art Museum removed a piece of Mimbes pottery from public display at the request of Zuni tribe members in New Mexico.

In late 1995, a scalp suspected to be Indian was quietly removed from view at the Fort Garland Museum and returned to the Pawnee tribe. The Blackfeet of Montana have asked that the Denver Art Museum give back numerous other objects, including a medicine bundle. The museum already returned a similar bundle in 1994.

Publicly, most Colorado curators enthuse that the new law is a giant cultural leap forward. They say NAGPRA gives them the opportunity to work alongside tribes that were ignored by earlier generations of archivists. With Indian input, they add, it now will be possible to identify objects whose use was previously unknown--and remove those offensive to various tribes' religious and spiritual beliefs.

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