Book review: “Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture” by Chip Colwell.
Imagine your great-grandmother’s bones in a museum closet. The museum is most likely in another state, maybe another country. Imagine it is just her scalp. Her other bones are separate, a foot in some rich person’s foyer, her tibia under dirt in a Wyoming meadow.
You will never have these separate parts of your grandmother and bury her according to your tradition and custom. The process to retrieve her remains from the museum will be long and arduous, mentally and emotionally exhausting.
The author of “Plundered Skulls,” Colwell, is curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Colwell was hired to protect objects in the museum, originating from 400 different tribes. Colwell was also hired to return those same objects through the process of repatriation, which translates from Latin as “to go home again.”
Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990. Natives have wanted the remains of their ancestors and sacred items returned for decades but had no recourse other than asking. Some anthropologists and museum curators were, and still even after the act has passed, hesitant to hand over Native remains and artifacts.
Colwell asks the reader, who has the right to care for these artifacts? He was hired to make fair and careful decisions.
Repatriations began to take place in earnest after the act passed. Colwell said repatriation began with the Zuni War Gods. The Hopi approached the Denver Art Museum, which had a collection of the War Gods, based on the Hopi style of conflict resolution.
“A reasonable person with a grievance goes to an adversary four times to attempt a peaceable resolution … only after this good faith at resolution is made should stronger action be taken.”
The public sided with the Zuni, and the art museum board, perhaps under public pressure, voted to return the gods. The museum was nervous about setting a precedent, and they were worried these sacred objects would not be cared for in the same delicate manner the museums care for each item (traditionally, Zuni War Gods are set out in the elements to decay naturally on shrines).
For Pacific Northwest tribes, ownership of a sacred item is difficult to prove, since most sacred items are owned communally. There were times of greed and desperation. Religious objects were stolen from the tribes by tribal members needing money. In most cases, while asking for repatriation for such items, the tribe knew just how the item had ended up in the museum.
Tribal leaders did not play the blame game. They would approach the board and say, “You’ve taken good care of these for years and you still have them. It’s in great shape. Now, they want to come home; thank you for taking care of them.”
I am continually struck by how patient and decent tribal leaders are in approaching museum boards to reclaim items that clearly belong to the tribe.
Colwell’s book is full of Native history. A description of the Sand Creek Massacre is horrifying. Most of the 100 scalps surviving the massacre are in museums or private homes. Just sit on that for a minute. People have Native scalps on display in their homes. How do you explain that to dinner guests?
As a reader, at this point, you will probably feel disgusted. Maybe you feel astonished that repatriation is a process and will take months to years. There is no argument a museum board or an anthropologist could give, that for me, would justify withholding these items.
Colwell notes that “at the current rate of repatriation, all of the unidentifiable remains in American museums would not be returned for another 238 years.” That’s a shame.
Ponder these wise words from Chief Seattle: “The ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their final resting place is hallowed ground, while you wander far from the graves of your ancestors, and seemingly without regret. Let the white man be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead aren’t altogether powerless.”
TaAnna Brown works the circulation desk and advises readers at Salida Regional Library.