Grave Reservations

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

Predictably, however, the return of objects seen as having scientific worth leaves some anthropologists edgy. The American Committee for Preservation of Archaeological Collections, a California organization, distributes a monthly newsletter whose main purpose is to rail against NAGPRA--the result of which, it recently editorialized, is that "political considerations take precedence over disinterested evaluation of knowledge claims about the human past."

But because the law applies to new archaeological finds as well, it could also affect the study of that past. Ancient skeletal remains recently recovered in Nevada, Idaho and Washington could challenge the record of who first inhabited North America. Local tribes, however, claim that the finds are ancient descendants to whose remains they are entitled under the new law. They are hoping to rebury the bones--which would also bury any possibililty of further scientific research.

And finally, as the case of Buckskin Charlie shows, the law will force archivists to question the accuracy of their displays. It could, in short, change history.

Roger Echo-Hawk, a slim man of Pawnee descent with a droopy mustache and fine black hair down to his waist, tells an instructional anecdote about old bones.

"In 1788 in New York City, medical students were required to come up with their own cadavers to study for anatomy," he says. "They usually used paupers' and black cemeteries. But that year, for some reason, they ran out of those resources, so they tried to raid graves of white middle-class folks. It resulted in riots; the young doctors were forced to flee the city. That's how white people reacted to the desecration of their remains.

"But at just about exactly the same time, Thomas Jefferson was excavating the graves of Indians for his own research. And apparently," Echo-Hawk concludes, "that was no problem."

The lesson, of course, is that in this country, the excavation and study of the remains of white people has been considered unacceptable for some time. Indians have been another matter.

"Every society puts boundaries on science, and they're not always clear-cut," Echo-Hawk continues.

"But with most human remains, we have fairly clear boundaries. While they are used for dissection and science and study, remains generally are to be treated with dignity and respect. For a variety of reasons, Indian remains have escaped that level of conscience. NAGPRA is a way to make the academic and museum communities as responsible to Indian communities as they have been to the whites."
When it was passed seven years ago--Echo-Hawk's brother, Walter, helped write the act--NAGPRA was viewed as a piece of overdue civil-rights legislation. But it also came to be regarded as a property law. Because Indian sensibilities and religion--and, more often than not, lives--generally were ignored as museums and universities built their Native American collections over the past two centuries, NAGPRA aimed to belatedly address the question of who actually owned those pieces of Indian history.

Now, Echo-Hawk says, the law provides incentive for museums to work cooperatively with Native Americans on their displays and collections. Those artifacts that are acceptable for general viewing and which museums can prove they came by honorably and with the tribe's permission will be displayed sensitively and correctly; the items that are inappropriate for non-tribal ownership will be returned. Some of those--skeletons and sacred religious objects, for example--will stay hidden from the public's view; others will be displayed by the tribes themselves, in their own museums.

"Just think if this had happened a hundred years ago," he muses. "If there had been as much effort in getting live Indians involved in the collection process as there had been in collecting dead ones, we'd have a very different world than we have today."

For the past three years, Echo-Hawk has held the position of "repatriation coordinator" for both the Denver Art Museum and the Colorado Historical Society. After working for the Pawnees on repatriation issues, he was hired in 1994 by the two institutions to work closely with tribes and determine exactly what NAGPRA meant for them. It is a growing field in museum curation.

No matter the size and breadth of their public exhibits, museums can display only a fraction of their holdings at any one time, and many curators have little idea what lies in their basements. Echo-Hawk's first big chore was to compile an inventory of all the Colorado Historical Society's human remains and funerary objects that would be covered by NAGPRA and eligible for repatriation to tribes. Such surveys are now required of every museum and university in the country that has a Native American collection. Echo-Hawk completed his in late 1995; he called it "Indentured Spirits."

In addition to studying the Colorado Historical Society's assembly of old bones, Echo-Hawk examined how its Native American collection was acquired. Although the society's methods were common enough at the time, in the bright light of 1990s sensibilities, the story, one of robbed graves and stolen religious objects, is an eye-opener.

Founded in 1879, the society began collecting Native American remains almost immediately. It acquired its first skull in 1882 and continues to add to its skeletal remains today, although it now serves more as a passive repository than an active archive.

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