Skip to contents
SunLit Interviews

Sacred objects, human remains and culture clash sparked a Colorado author’s desire to tell a tragic story

Denver museum curator Chip Colwell examined the tension between tribal communities and museums that continues to this day

Chip Colwell is senior curator of Anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. He has held fellowships with the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, National Endowment for the Humanities, and U.S. Fulbright Program. He has published 11 books and many articles in such publications as The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Denver Post.

Colwell is the author of “Plundered Souls and Stolen Spirits.”


What inspired you to write this book?

In 2007, I was hired as a curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Part of my new job was to oversee the museum’s repatriation program. From the start I was totally fascinated by the work and understood there was an important story to tell.

Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

In many ways, I was most inspired for this book by “When the Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.” Written by Anne Fadiman, the book explores what happened when a Hmong family from Laos moved to California, and their daughter was struck by severe epilepsy. In Hmong culture, epilepsy is not so much a disease to be cured as a kind of spiritual blessing.

“Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits” by Chip Colwell. (Handout)

What ensues is a major culture clash with doctors and social service administrators. What I loved about the book was how the reader could empathize with all sides – right and wrong existed in shades of gray rather than black and white.

While in my book I’m clear about where I stand, I wanted to be evenhanded, to see the battle over human remains and sacred objects in museums as most basically a culture clash where most people are doing what they think is right.

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?

This is one of my favorite sections from the book. It kicks off the first story – the Zuni Tribe in New Mexico’s search for the War Gods, wooden sculptures, which they consider living and holy beings, but collected through the years as art pieces and historical artifacts. It shows right from the start the tension created by the different worldviews of tribal communities and museums.

What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?

Researching this book, I traveled to Europe with a Zuni elder and religious leader, Octavius Seowtewa. We traveled to different museums that still hold the War Gods and I observed how he tried to get them home. It was profoundly powerful and tragic to see so many museums not only say no, but struggle to understand the very cultures they are trying to honor through their collections.

MORE: Read more SunLit author interviews

What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?

The Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 is among the most horrifying events that unfolded in the wake of America’s westward expansion. While many may be aware of the deaths from the massacre, fewer are aware that human remains—skulls and scalps—from Cheyenne and Arapaho were taken and ended up in museums. My frequent nightmares were difficult. It definitely made me realize just how much the descendants of the Cheyenne and Arapaho victims continue to suffer.

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

For a book about history, it’s hard to pick just one! But I’d say that it’s the fact that at the current rate of returning Native American human remains, it will be more than two centuries before all of Native peoples’ ancestors have been respectfully returned to the earth.

What project are you working on next?

During (work on) this book I became especially fascinated by how different cultures can put so much value into objects. What for one culture is a piece of art is for another culture a living god. How did that happen? What’s the story of how humanity came to give such deep and diverse meanings to the things we need, love, and loathe? My next book is the 3-million-year story of how humans came to use the things in our lives—how humankind went from naked apes to ceaseless shoppers, from animals that needed nothing to people who need everything.


We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable. This reporting depends on support from readers like you.

Buy “Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits” at BookBar

Excerpt: “Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits.”

More from The Colorado Sun