Grave Reservations

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

Providence officials were unmoved by the decision. Within days they'd hired a lawyer and sued the Hawaiian group and the U.S. Department of the Interior, claiming that any attempt to take the statue without compensation was unconstitutional.

Today the statue is in a bank safety-deposit box, awaiting a final disposition. Only the museum director and the Providence superintendent of parks have keys; both must be present to open the box.

Museums accustomed to buying and selling pieces of their collections may find themselves running up against the law. Six years ago, just as NAGPRA was going into effect, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center began selling off several works in an effort to both narrow its collection to objects from the Southwest U.S. and Mexico and raise funds for new acquisitions.

The pieces for sale ranged from paintings by the European artist Marc Chagall to a collection of Native American artifacts from the northwestern U.S. Most of the Indian items were purchased by a private collector named Eugene Thaw, who has since donated them to another museum in Cooperstown, New York. To date, the Fine Arts Center has raised $1.5 million from the sale.

A year and a half ago, however, the center was contacted by representatives of Alaska's Tlingit tribe, who requested the return of a Raven rattle. The rattle, which dates from the mid-1800s, is etched with pictographs depicting a religious ceremony. Unfortunately, the rattle had already been sold to Thaw.

The museum has offered to hire an artisan to make a replica of the rattle for the tribe. But that won't solve its legal problems: NAGPRA forbids the sale of any Native American artifacts that a tribe may someday request for repatriation. The Colorado Springs museum is now under investigation by the National Park Service for breaking the law.

With very few exceptions, museums in this country long ago stopped displaying human remains, whether Native American or white. So despite some archaeologists' concern that the mass return of skeletons (an estimated 120,000 in various publicly owned collections across the U.S.) to their Native American heirs is a devastating loss to science, for most people the process will be invisible. Other provisions of NAGPRA, however, could have profound effects on Native American collections now on public display.

For example, NAGPRA also states that tribes are entitled to artifacts of "cultural patrimony" currently held by musems. The definition is complicated. Echo-Hawk suggests such items be thought of as, say, the Liberty Bell, or the original signed Declaration of Independence--particular pieces of common cultural history that are deemed so important as to be irreplaceable. Another category eligible for return are "sacred objects." What, exactly, those artifacts may be varies from tribe to tribe.

According to the park service's McKeown, under the act, tribes have requested 611 separate items (one of them being the Polynesian statue) identified as either sacred or as having cultural patrimony with a particular tribe. But, he adds, he expects that number to jump as more tribes undertake the time-consuming task of determining what items are essential to their history.

Museums themselves have been reluctant to start the process, in part because many curators genuinely don't know what is sacred to a tribe and what isn't. Besides, under NAGPRA, the burden of proof is on the tribes to show that the artifact in question is necessary for the continued practice of traditional Native American religions--the legal definition of "sacred"--or of irreplaceable cultural value.

Museums have begun hosting tours of tribal representatives, with an eye toward identifying what may be covered under the new law. Some of the inspections have proved embarrassing, highlighting curators' ignorance of their Native American collections. Gordon Yellowman, of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes of Oklahoma, recalls visiting a Texas museum and pointing out that a Cheyenne shield was displayed upside down.

One of the first groups to inspect both the Denver Art Museum and the Colorado History Museum was the Jicarilla Apache, who toured the facilities in 1994. Two weeks ago a group from the Zuni Pueblo went through the two collections. In all, Echo-Hawk says, about two dozen tribal representatives have surveyed the Colorado repositories.

Several of the tribes requested that exhibits be altered. In 1992 members of the Crow tribe asked that a sacred pipe be taken off public display at the art museum. Last year Zuni representatives pointed out that, in addition to being used as a vessel, a ceramic bowl on display at the art museum was traditionally placed over the face of the dead at burial. The item was removed from view. This past spring a delegation of Apache asked that a Gan, or mountain spirit mask, be pulled from view, and the museum complied. Three years ago Mesa Verde removed six objects--one was an opened medicine bundle--from display after tribal delegations deemed them offensive.

Yellowman says his organization will soon identify "numerous objects of cultural patrimony and 25 sacred objects" it considers itself legally entitled to under NAGPRA. The public may never notice if some of those items are returned. But others, such as the combat ledger book currently on display in the historical society's "Cheyenne Dog Soldier" exhibit, would be greatly missed. "It contains an ongoing history of our community," Yellowman says, explaining why the tribe wants it back. "It's an actual history of our people."

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