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Grave Reservations

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

"The purpose for making these acquisitions was twofold," Echo-Hawk wrote. "First, because it was expected of museums during this period to collect the remains of Indians for scientific study; and second, because the display of such collections could be counted upon to draw the interest of a supportive non-Indian public in Colorado."

The historical society's museums ended most public displays of human remains years ago, long before the collection became controversial. But as early as 1981, the society, noting an increase in "minority political activism," proposed a comprehensive study of its now-sprawling Indian human-remains collection.

That study quickly became a hot topic. Quoting internal memos, Echo-Hawk noted that historical society officials decided not to publicize the analysis for fear of finding themselves in a racial debate. "Given the circumstances of this period in time--during which some Indians and archaeologists in Colorado were in serious conflict--the advertising of a competitive contract for the study of Indian remains at CHS might well have attracted unwanted attention from Native American activists," he wrote. The contract was secretly given to a University of Colorado graduate student, James Hummert.

Echo-Hawk's research, which took him more than a year to complete, included some remarkable archaeological sleuthing. As is the case with all good science, his most successful work tells a story.

On the evening of June 19, 1885, two families from the Weeminuche band of what is known today as the Ute Mountain Ute tribe made a camp along Beaver Creek, just north of Dolores. The nine-member group had traveled from the reservation, where the hunting had been poor, to the south in search of meat. Most of them didn't live to see the sun rise.

In an interview he gave six months later, in December 1885, the Ute chief Ignacio recalled: "On the morning of the 20th, before daylight, when all my people were asleep in their tents, some whites made an attack, firing from cliffs and rocks nearby with rifles. Seven of my people were killed--four men, two squaws and one child. Two others got away unhurt."

Other accounts of the incident, which became known as the Beaver Creek Massacre, were both written and passed down by word of mouth. They differ as to the number and description of the Utes killed, yet all agree that the Indians were attacked for no good reason, in their tents, while they slept.

A government agent arrived on the scene several days later with two companies of United States cavalry and guided by a Ute woman who'd escaped the massacre. He found the Indians' corpses still scattered about the campsite.

"On arriving there we found the bodies of six Indians in a condition which clearly proved that they had been attacked and killed while asleep," the agent wrote in the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for 1885. "There can be no excuse for this foul crime, and it will always be a foul blot upon the reputation of this country." No one was ever charged with the murders, much less convicted.

The historical record is incomplete regarding what happened to the bodies of the slain Utes. But in July 1897 a woman named Mrs. M.E. Crowly approached the Colorado Historical Society and offered the donation of a bleached skull. It was accompanied by this notation: "Ute woman killed on the western slope of Colorado in the year 1885." A forensic analysis of the bones done nearly a century later showed that the "woman" was actually twelve years old. One hundred and twelve years after the Beaver Creek Massacre, the society's Colorado History Museum still has the skull, technically known as Object #O.6013.1, stored in a basement room.

Yet the stories behind other bones in the society's collection of human remains are far less complete. For reasons ranging from poor documentation to the mixing up of bones between individual skeletons, many remains will never be unidentified. And more keep coming in from unpredictable--and less than reliable--sources.

In 1995, as they burst into a house during a drug raid, several officers of the Wheat Ridge Police Department noticed a human skull sitting on a table. "Policemen see skulls and their curiosity gets the better of them," explains Lieutenant Steve Blair, a department spokesman. The skull was sent to a state crime lab, which identified it as Native American. (Mool Verma, the physical anthropologist who examined the skull, explains that the practice of keeping "trophy skulls" as "a macho thing" took off after the Vietnam War.) The skull was handed over to the historical society.

Connections between some of the remains and their descendants can be made by circumstantial evidence: where the bones were found, what objects lay with them. But others will probably never be tied to a particular tribe. At last count, the historical society had 351 unidentified Native American skeletons or parts of skeletons. It continues to debate what is to be done with them under NAGPRA.

Bones are not the only remains covered by the law; other body parts also must be returned to their ancestral owners when possible. But the law provides no particulars, so curators have literally been splitting hairs trying to determine what qualifies as a "human remain."

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