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A museum curator reflects on the fraught task of assigning ownership of American Indian artifacts

Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture

Chip Colwell
University of Chicago Press
2017
356 pp.
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Chip Colwell’s Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits is a sobering peek into the controversy that surrounds tribal artifacts and human remains found in museums throughout the United States. His eloquent narration details several unique cases of repatriation—the return of these objects and remains to American Indian tribes—highlighting the arduous process of interpreting and implementing the controversial Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA).

As director for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Colwell has a unique perspective on the challenges associated with working with tribal communities. He provides the reader with a firsthand look at the repatriation process, sympathetically including tribal perspectives—something that few museum directors have sought to do when writing on this subject in the past. In doing so, Colwell asks readers to consider the questions confronting museums: Who are the true owners of these artifacts, and who should decide whether they should be returned to the native communities from which they were taken or retained for scientific analysis?

According to the Zuni tribe of the American Southwest, the hundreds of hand-carved statuettes known as “War Gods” are intrinsically sacred, having been endowed with a life force that collectively maintains spiritual balance in the universe. Yet, over the years, many of the War Gods fell into the possession of outsiders and were eventually traded, sold, and lost to museums and collectors all over the globe.

In the late 1970s, the Zuni approached the Denver Art Museum (DAM), requesting the return of the War Gods in their possession. Fearful that repatriation of the statues would lead to a request for the return of all American Indian artifacts, a precedent that no museum desired, DAM administrators initially resisted. But public support for the Zuni may have contributed to an eventual change of heart. “It seems peculiar to me,” one Denver resident wrote to the museum’s director, “that your museum could display American Indian art and at the same time have little or no concern for the creators of this art.” The DAM’s three War Gods were returned to the Zuni in the fall of 1980.

The Sand Creek Massacre was one of the most horrific assaults on an American Indian tribe in history. In November of 1864, a Cheyenne village in the Colorado Territory, purportedly under protection of a U.S. treaty, was slaughtered in their sleep. They were mutilated and left to rot on the open plain, scalps and other trophies were collected from the dead and dying, and the remains of a number of the victims eventually found their way to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

In 1991, a representative of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in Oklahoma wrote a letter requesting the return of the “friendly Indians” killed at Sand Creek. What seemed at first to be a clear-cut case for repatriation turned messy as others, including a private group of the village’s descendants, came forward to argue that they were the rightful recipients of the remains. Colwell uses the story of the repatriation of the Sand Creek remains to show how difficult it can be to negotiate an agreeable solution to these cases.

What happens if a museum deems objects to be “culturally unaffiliated” to any living tribe? The Miccosukee tribe of Florida, close relatives of the Calusa—declared extinct by anthropologists—learned firsthand. According to NAGPRA, cultural items from nonliving tribes are not eligible for repatriation. Colwell recounts how he was asked to reconsider a previous curator’s designation of the Calusa as unaffiliated. Initially, he denied the request, but ultimately, he acquiesced. “I am an archaeologist,” he writes, “… But the value of my profession … does not trump all other human obligations. In a multicultural society, we have a duty to ensure that our own beliefs do not unjustly impinge on the freedom of others to pursue theirs.”

When NAGPRA was passed, curators and scientists warned that the most valuable of American Indian items would be cleaned from their shelves and museums would be forced to shutter their doors. In the closing pages of the book, Colwell notes that “No museum has yet gone out of business because of repatriation.”

Instead, more than 200 tribes have built their own museums to ensure preservation, having realized that those who retain the artifacts control the narrative. For American Indians, having the ability to tell their own version of the story is the ultimate empowerment.

About the author

The reviewer is in the Office of the President at the University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403, USA.