By Jonathan Shikes
By Michael Roberts
By Jonathan Shikes
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By William Breathes
By Melanie Asmar
On his deathbed in 1880, the great Ute chief Ouray instructed a protege named Buckskin Charlie to stay with the Utes and help lead the tribe through the difficult times ahead. It was a lousy last request. The Utes, seeking a permanent place to call their own in Colorado, were facing a hostile white populace. "[We] regard them as a menace, a source of danger, an impediment to the opening of the best lands in the state," Governor F.W. Pitkin told reporters at the time. "The Ute," he concluded, "must go."
But Buckskin Charlie stayed, and though his legacy is mixed--he urged members of what would become the Southern Ute tribe to turn away from their traditional ways and learn to read and write and farm like the whites--he became a critical figure in Ute history. "His role was a peacekeeping one, keeping the people from going to war with the U.S. government," recalls Alden Naranjo, a Southern Ute living in Ignacio.
Buckskin Charlie, a husky, stern-looking man, died in 1936. As he drew his final breaths, he instructed that one of his long ceremonial headdresses of dipped eagle feathers and beads be donated to a white friend. Over the following years, the item was passed down between friends and family members. In 1961 a woman donated it to the Colorado Historical Society, which placed the headdress on display at the society's Ute Indian Museum in Montrose, where it remains today.
That's the historical society's version of events, at least. The Utes are skeptical.
"My people didn't give things like that away," Naranjo points out. "The headdress is the mark of who the owner is, a symbol like the white man's throne or crown. It's important that we get something like this back, to show we have not given into the U.S. government's mainstream of society, that we are still a sovereign people."
In November 1990 Congress passed the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act--NAGPRA. The law is enormously complex but essentially calls for the return of all Indian human remains, sacred objects and important cultural icons to their proper, modern-day descendants. Although the law is now nearly seven years old, because of NAGPRA's labyrinth of paperwork requirements, its effects are just beginning to be felt by local museums.
Early this year the Southern Ute, citing the act, asked that Buckskin Charlie's headdress be returned. Tribal representatives contended that Buckskin Charlie was central to the history of the tribe. Recovering the symbol of his leadership, they stressed, was of crucial importance to the Ute; the society had no right to the headdress. The historical society, however, has resisted.
"The Colorado Historical Society is just what its name says: It's an elite society," complains Naranjo. "I can't talk to these people."
Roger Echo-Hawk, who is charged with overseeing the society's return of tribal relics, says that "negotiations are ongoing" with the Southern Utes.
Anxious discussions between tribes and the traditional repositories of Native American antiquities are certain to become more common. As a result of NAGPRA, archivists in museums and universities across the country are re-evaluating their Indian artifacts in anticipation of giving many of them back. Every Native American human remain in the Colorado Historical Society's vast collection, for instance, is to be returned to its descendants.
That includes everything from Object E.1748.1--"A scalp taken from the head of an Indian warrior at the Battle of Sand Creek, Colorado, November 29, 1864" (donated by Mrs. Jacob Downing in 1911, who probably inherited it from her husband, Major Downing, a leader of the massacre)--to Object OAHP.90, an "American Indian cranium" recovered by the Northglenn Police Department "at 11701 North Washington on November 2, 1993." In all, some 600 remains and funerary objects--items found in graves--in the historical society's collection, divided between several locations across the state, are available for tribes willing to claim them.
Next year Mesa Verde National Monument, home to one of the largest repositories of Native American remains in the country, will rebury its entire collection: 450 individual skeletons, 3,000 incomplete skeletons and 3,000 objects found buried with the Indian remains, which are mostly of Pueblo descent. The bones and artifacts will be reinterred at a secret location.
Bones are not the only items eligible for repatriation. Six weeks ago the Denver Museum of Natural History returned a ceremonial hat to a tribe in Alaska. Last fall the Denver Art Museum removed a piece of Mimbes pottery from public display at the request of Zuni tribe members in New Mexico.
In late 1995, a scalp suspected to be Indian was quietly removed from view at the Fort Garland Museum and returned to the Pawnee tribe. The Blackfeet of Montana have asked that the Denver Art Museum give back numerous other objects, including a medicine bundle. The museum already returned a similar bundle in 1994.
Publicly, most Colorado curators enthuse that the new law is a giant cultural leap forward. They say NAGPRA gives them the opportunity to work alongside tribes that were ignored by earlier generations of archivists. With Indian input, they add, it now will be possible to identify objects whose use was previously unknown--and remove those offensive to various tribes' religious and spiritual beliefs.
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.
"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."
"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.
Four weeks ago, a federal judge in Portland, Oregon, stopped short of settling the dispute. Instead, U.S. Magistrate John Jelderks ordered the Corps to postpone the return of the remains to the Umatilla and, in the meantime, to reconsider the scientists' request that they be allowed to study the bones. Years of legal wrangling are almost certain to follow.
Kennewick Man is not the only case to pit the empirical desires of scientists against the spiritual wishes of Native Americans. In 1940, archaeologists digging around Spirit Cave, in Churchill County, Nevada, discovered what appeared to be an ancient mummy--a middle-aged man lying on a fur blanket and wrapped in mats. The diggers' excitement was doused, however, when the then-curator of Nevada's Southwest Museum informed them that the body was a mere 1,500 years old--2,000 at the most. The mummy was stuck in a museum vault and promptly forgotten.
In late 1994, a group of scientists experimenting with carbon-dating revisited the mummy. Their tests showed his actual age to be closer to 9,400 years old--older by far than any mummy found in Egypt. By then, of course, NAGPRA had become law. The mummy, which had been found on Bureau of Land Management property, has since been claimed by the Northern Paiute tribe as a lineal ancestor; another long court battle is expected.
The fates of other potentially significant archaeological finds claimed by Native Americans have already been decided, and not to the satisfaction of many scientists. In 1992, the skull of a twenty-year-old woman was uncovered near Buhl, Idaho. Although carbon-dating indicated it to be nearly 11,000 years old, and therefore of enormous scientific interest, before DNA tests could be conducted, the find was turned over to the Shoshone-Bannock tribe as an ancestral remain. The tribe reburied it on its reservation near Fort Hall, Idaho.
The scientific worth of a discovery such as Kennewick Man or the Buhl woman is incalculable. But in a time of tight budgets and stingy government grants, the value of an institution's collection can have a much more concrete application. At the heart of NAGPRA is the question of ownership. And central to the ownership issue is the question of who may realize the economic value of a particular piece of property.
In the early 1920s, the Providence Franklin Society--a group of retired Rhode Island sea captains, whalers and ship owners--disbanded. Over the years, the organization's members had amassed a small collection of artifacts and souvenirs they'd come across during their travels around the world. When the group broke up, the collection was disbursed.
One of the items, a fifteen-and-a-half-inch wooden carving of a Polynesian man crouching like a wrestler, was bequeathed to the Providence Museum of Natural History. The piece, labeled as a "spear holder," was displayed in the museum's Pacific Hall from 1954 to 1972. Although it later appeared as part of a 1982 exhibit at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, the statue eventually was judged too valuable--it was appraised at $400,000--and museum security too poor to risk further display.
The museum had been looking to sell the piece on and off for a decade. Last year it finally received an offer of $200,000 from a private Connecticut collector. The bid generated attention, and two other offers for the statue came in soon after that.
Within days of learning of the pending sale, however, a native Hawaiian group active in reclaiming Polynesian artifacts declared that the carving was a sacred object and subject to return under NAGPRA. The city of Providence, which owns the museum, refused, and the Hawaiian group appealed to the NAGPRA Review Committee, a seven-member board set up to broker such disputes.
To date, the review committee has been asked to resolve only five disagreements, although it expects to become busier as Native American groups begin claiming more valuable artifacts, says Tim McKeown, the National Park Service official in charge of interpreting the new law. The first two disputes heard by the board, in 1993 and 1994, were over Hawaiian human remains held by the Hearst Museum, in Berkeley, and by a Marine Corps base in Hawaii. Both were decided in favor of the Hawaiians.
In 1995, a descendant of the Kiowa chief Satanta claimed he was entitled to a shield thought to be owned by the chief, and held by the Hearst Museum. The museum refused and the case went to the NAGPRA review committee, which ruled that the man was indeed related to Satanta--but that any evidence that the shield belonged to the chief was unconvincing. The Hearst Museum kept the piece.
The fourth case, which the committee heard last fall, involved a dispute between three branches of the Oneida tribe, two from the U.S. and one from Canada. All claimed a wampum belt as a cultural icon central to their historical record. The question of who ultimately will own the belt, which is now part of a collection in Chicago's Field Museum, has yet to be resolved.
The case of the Providence/Polynesian spear holder was heard by the NAGPRA committee last November. After testimony from various scientists, it sided with the Hawaiians, ruling that the statue was not merely a spear holder but a sacred object "needed by traditional Native Hawaiian religious leaders for the practice of traditional Native Hawaiian religion by its present-day adherents."
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."
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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