Ethically Grounded Repatriation

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science is committed to the principles of respect, reciprocity, justice, and dialogue to address any and all claims for repatriation

On November 16, 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known as NAGPRA. This expansive law establishes a process—often called repatriation—for museums to return cultural items and human remains. At the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, NAGPRA has radically improved the Museum’s relationship with Native Americans.

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science has returned numerous cultural items through NAGPRA as well as items to Canada and Kenya. The Museum has consulted on all known Native American human remains in its collections and only curates human remains for which informed consent has been given by the individual or her/his family, kin, or community.

Repatriation at the Museum

From the first, the Museum’s approach to NAGPRA has been guided by its Ethics Policy Statement (board adopted in 2008; reaffirmed in 2017), which directs the Museum’s president, staff, and trustees to implement ethical practices. These include:

The Museum shall not knowingly and willfully accept or acquire any object that was illegally imported or illegally collected or that was received under circumstances that would encourage irresponsible damage, destruction, or illegal trade of biota; historic, cultural, and natural sites; or human burial places.

Decisions concerning human remains and sacred and funerary objects are treated with the respect and cultural sensitivity that emerges from the legal and governing practices of the culture of origin. The unique and special nature of human remains and funerary and sacred objects is recognized as the basis of all decisions concerning these collections.

Competing claims of ownership that may arise in connection with objects in the Museum’s custody shall be handled openly, seriously, responsively, and with respect for the dignity of all parties involved.

Additionally, the Museum’s approach to repatriation must be guided by its Manual of Collection Policies (board adopted in 2008; reaffirmed in 2017). Read Section 11 of the Manual of Collection Policies for more information.  These principles, practices, and ethical commitments should guide all procedures outlined here. This procedures document particularly reaffirms the Museum’s commitment to the principles of respect, reciprocity, justice, and dialogue to address any and all claims.

Returning the Vigango to the Mijikenda

In 2008, we became aware that the DMNS had 30 wooden statues called vigango (singular: kigango) in its collection. We quickly studied up on what these were.

Vigango are more than just grave markers in the Western sense. The Mijikenda believe vigango are living objects and the physical embodiment of a dead person’s soul. Like totem poles in the Northwest Coast of North America, once erected, vigango are to be left alone to decay through natural forces. Most assuredly, vigango are not works of art to be held by or displayed in museums. We knew we had to return them to the Mijikenda.

NAGPRA does not apply to objects from Kenya because, among other things, the U.S. government has no jurisdiction over Kenyan property and people, and rightfully so. The flip side is also true—the Kenyan government can’t simply pass a law declaring that foreign entities like U.S. museums have to repatriate vigango. It doesn’t work that way.

After a lot of work, false celebrations and a chance encounter the vingango were successfully returned to Kenya in 2019.  Later that year, Dr. Steve Nash and family journeyed to Kenya to see the vigango at the Fort Jesus Museum in Mombasa and visited Mijikenda villages from which the objects were taken. 

These elders have faced horrific losses. Imagine having the embodiment of your most revered loved ones taken from their final resting place. It’s difficult to consider the emotional, psychological, and cosmic toll that would take, but it’s what they have had to deal with for more than three decades, as art dealers and collectors took their heritage away from them.

The Mijikenda are working to develop a center in one of their sacred forests where the vigango from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science will be eventually placed and protected.  

Learn More:  

A Curator's Search for Justice

Do Stolen Sacred Objects Experience Culture Shock?

Vigango Repatriation

Join Senior Curator of Archaeology Dr. Steve Nash for a brief discussion about the Museum's decade-long and ultimately successful effort to repatriate sacred grave posts the Mijikenda of Kenya.

Crestone Reburial

OOctober 14, 2015, a wonderfully crisp fall morning under a clear blue sky, a large number of people from Crestone, including the mayor, joined a sizable Museum delegation to pay their respects. We asked the assembled to recognize the sacrifice, honor, and dignity of the individuals whose remains we were burying. We then invited those who were so moved to place the remains in the grave; we tossed handfuls of dirt to cover them before a backhoe gently finished our task.

Learn More

A Mass Burial in Colorado

The Skeletons in the Museum Closet

Frequently Asked Questions

For any cultural items that have been identified as subject to NAGPRA or as sacred, permission must first be obtained from the governing body of the culturally affiliated tribe.

Every case is treated on its own merits. For a history of the Museum’s approach to NAGPRA, please consult Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture.  

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