Grave Reservations

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

"The standard we use," Echo-Hawk explains, "is, 'Was the part freely given?'" Therefore, certain objects that frequently adorn Indian art, such as hair locks and umbilical cords, do not necessarily have to be returned to tribes claiming ownership.

Scalp locks, however, are presumed to have been taken rather than given. So in 1995, when Echo-Hawk discovered a scalp still on display at the society's Fort Garland Museum, he asked that it be removed and returned to Denver. Representatives from tribes known to have inhabited the area were contacted; eventually, the Pawnee claimed the scalp. It was given back to the tribe and reburied in a ceremony last year.

"It was a piece with some grayish hair. I guess it had some skin attached," recalls Josephine Lobato, who curates the Fort Garland Museum. "You couldn't tell by me if it was Native American or not. It's real hard to make a distinction about that."

Indeed, positively identifying remains as Native American and thus eligible for return to a tribe is proving one of the trickier parts of NAGPRA. What to make, for instance, of the Denver Art Museum's Cheyenne knife sheath with a decorative scalp lock? Historical accounts show that the tribe engaged in warfare with Indians and whites and in the process took scalps from both. Last year Echo-Hawk sent the object to the Denver police crime lab for hair analysis. The tests showed the hair most likely belonged to a white, but, says Echo-Hawk, "we're still not sure the test is accurate."

Or what about the art museum's object #1946.161, "Cheyenne necklace with knuckle bones"? A representative of the Southern Cheyenne confirmed that the necklace was typical of those traditionally made and kept by the tribe. But, once again, because the tribe fought both Native American and white enemies, the origin of the bones was unclear. An exam by a physical anthropologist last summer was inconclusive.

So far, such uncertainties have been handled with minimal hassle: The skeletons and artwork, while of some historic interest to the museums and tribes alike, have been of little scientific value. Even at Mesa Verde, the pending return of the park's vast collection of Pueblan remains is being viewed by park researchers as a loss of marginal concern.

Most of the bones in the Mesa Verde collection were excavated in the late 1800s in digs led by the Wetherill family. Their spectacular finds offer a perfect example of why many Native Americans pushed for NAGPRA. The Weeminuche Ute, who knew of the massive pueblo that would later be called Mesa Verde, stayed away from the site because they were concerned about disturbing the spirits of the dead. Consequently, when the Wetherills arrived, they found the remains in superb condition. "We owe the preservation of all the ancient dwellings to the superstition of the native American," Richard Wetherill later wrote.

This summer, in preparation for the mass reburial, Mesa Verde archaeologists are reviewing written records to determine, as best they can, what direction the bodies were facing, as well as their position at the time of burial. Their intention is to re-inter the remains in an approximation of their original burials.

The loss of the collection "does remove an element of further analysis and interpretation," concedes Linda Towle, chief of research and resource management at Mesa Verde. "I'm an archaeologist, so I see the importance of studying it."

But, she adds, "this material has been out of the ground for thirty years. I feel the profession had ample opportunity."

Such cooperation between curators, scientists and tribal representatives can disappear quickly when an object being claimed has genuine value.

On July 28 of last year, a college student kicking along the muddy banks of the Columbia River in Washington state stubbed his toe on a skull. Because of its shape, officials initially identified it as a white man who'd died perhaps a hundred years earlier.

Nevertheless, to make certain, they delivered the skull and other nearby remains to a local independent anthropologist, who made a shocking discovery. His carbon dating showed the bones were extraordinarily old--the skeleton of a man who lived about 9,300 years ago. More remarkably, an examination confirmed that the man did, in fact, have Caucasoid features.

Because of its age and ethnic traits, Kennewick Man--named for a nearby town--has enormous implications for archaeologists and anthropologists. It might mean, for example, that ancestors of Caucasians arrived in North America long before 1492, the year Columbus arrived. Other debates that could grow out of the discovery are almost too enormous--and too politically sensitive--to grasp: What if Native Americans are genetically related to whites?

Yet the bones were uncovered on land managed by the Army Corps of Engineers--public land--and were thus covered by NAGPRA. When the find became public, five local tribes laid claim to the remains. In August the Army Corps ordered the bones confiscated by the local sheriff, with the intent of turning them over to one of the five tribes, the Umatilla, for reburial.

Alarmed at the possibility of losing the find, a group of scientists quickly hired a lawyer and requested a restraining order to prevent what they said would be a disastrous blow to science. Not only did the age of the remains make it impossible to trace their lineage to any modern-day tribe, they argued, but the presence of what appeared to be Caucasoid features suggested that Kennewick Man might not be Indian at all.

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