Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
On November 16, 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known as NAGPRA. This expansive law establishes a process -- called repatriation -- for museums to return cultural items and human remains. Over the last 20 years, NAGPRA has radically changed the relationship between Native Americans and museums.
"We feel we have an ethical obligation to try and solve the problems that museums themselves created," said Dr. Chip Colwell.
The Denver Museum of Nature & Science has sought new beginnings with many tribes. The Museum recently returned to the Tlingit of Alaska the "Strongman Housepost Robe." Worn in ceremonies for decades by members of the Gaanaxteidi Clan, this dramatic robe was furtively sold in the 1970s when art dealers began offering small fortunes for these kinds of cultural objects. Years later, when members of the Gaanaxteidi Clan learned that the robe had been donated to the Museum, they began consulting with Museum officials. In 2009, the Museum repatriated the robe to the clan, and it is now worn again in ceremonies.
However, perhaps the most difficult and emotional aspect of NAGPRA is human remains. Since 2008, the Museum has received three grants from the National Park Service to address the disposition of human remains that could not be affiliated with any single tribe. The Museum has consulted with more than 142 U.S. tribes and has now come up with agreements for the remains of more than 50 individuals.
"The goal is to repatriate all remains, move beyond this legacy that we've inherited, and repair our relationships with Native American communities. We continue working with the tribes to ensure that these remains are reverently, and finally, laid to rest," said Dr. Colwell.
Creating Collaborative Catalogs
"Usually, when anthropologists are looking to expand their collections, they go into a community, take an object, describe it using their own anthropological terms, put it in storage, and add the information into a database. It's a very one-way process," said Dr. Chip Colwell.
Creating Collaborative Catalogs: Using Digital Technologies to Expand Museums is a three-year project to develop an innovative open-source, online collaborative catalog system so museums can gather indigenous perspectives while maintaining the museum's existing data.
Unlike most museums catalogues that are "closed" to the very communities that created the objects, this new system will allow information from tribal members to be incorporated into the database. The goal of the project is to create a refined model that museums can use to include Native American perspectives within their community context.
The Denver Museum of Nature & Science will begin this project by focusing on approximately 550 objects in our collections from the Pueblo of Zuni, in New Mexico. The database will allow for a two-way flow of information, including the Museum's descriptions, as well as text, video, audio, and additional photos and drawings from the Pueblo of Zuni community.
"We're looking to work together to create a common understanding. It's the personal interpretations that give life and real value to objects," said Dr. Colwell.
UCLA is partnering with the Denver Art Museum, Museum of Northern Arizona, Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, and A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center on this project.
Repatriation and Reconciliation
Since the passing of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the Denver Museum of Nature & Science has invested time and energy into ensuring that Native American cultural objects and human remains return to the tribes in which they belong. But what happens after they go back?
Dr. Chip Colwell is conducting an ethnographic project to study whether the return of these objects and remains has led to the healing of the wounds of history.
"Often when these objects went missing from the tribes, it led to social turmoil and spiritual crises. What I want to find out is if the return of these objects has really led to the process of healing, and if it has brought these communities back together," said Dr. Colwell.
The project explores three central questions. First, in what ways have the moral obligations of repatriation shifted people's beliefs and behaviors, as well as museum policies and strategies? Second, why and when does repatriation become a form of restorative justice? And third, how are perceived ethical duties about repatriation negotiated within and between tribes and museums? These questions are investigated using a survey of federally recognized tribes along with interviewing community leaders and elders from four regions in the United States.
Funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the findings will be written in journal articles and a book for the general public that will tell the life stories of repatriated objects.