Grave Reservations

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

So far, however, only two objects from Denver museums have been repatriated: the medicine bundle, which qualified as a sacred object, was retrieved by the Blackfeet of Montana in 1994 (the tribe originally requested the piece in 1989, before NAGPRA; the art museum refused); and the ceremonial wooden hat, an object of cultural patrimony, which was repatriated by the Tlingit and Haida tribes of Alaska from the Denver Museum of Natural History.

More objects may be returned soon. Tribes have identified two other artifacts as eligible for repatriation from Denver museums based on cultural patrimony. One is another medicine bundle, along with 35 associated objects, requested by the Blackfeet; that request is pending. The other is Buckskin Charlie's headdress.

The Southern Ute say they are aware of the existence of one other headdress owned by the chief; according to Alden Naranjo, it's in the hands of a private collector in Arizona. He's offered to sell it to the tribe for $35,000--a sum the Southern Utes are not prepared to pay, Naranjo says.

Echo-Hawk explains that the historical society does not necessarily oppose returning the headdress to the Southern Ute--or, for that matter, returning any object that falls under the new law. But, he adds, NAGPRA has very specific rules, which the Ute failed to meet. "Their claim focused exclusively on Buckskin Charlie's importance as a tribal leader and not on the object," Echo-Hawk says. "They must show that this headdress itself was of importance to the community, and inalienable."

Still, he adds, he understands the tribe's frustration at having to fight for the headdress's return. "It's very important to them," he acknowledges. "And it's in our museum."

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