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To right historic wrongs, Colorado museums embraced spirit of a law that repatriated Native American artifacts and remains — largely by listening

Leaders like History Colorado’s recently retired Sheila Goff have fostered trust and helped repair generations of damage and disrespect

Sheila Goff, recently retired from History Colorado, observes part of the "Written on the Land" exhibit that showcases the state's Ute tribes. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Behind locked metal doors at History Colorado, Sheila Goff slips between towering rows of movable storage cabinets and opens one compartment that holds several artifacts from one of the state’s Ute tribes.

Using green nitrile gloves, she carefully removes a pipe bowl, which purposely has been detached from its stem for storage. This minute but critical detail speaks volumes about the relationship between Colorado museums and the Native American tribes whose creations and cultural history — even human remains — for decades found their way to exhibits, often without their approval or even their knowledge.

Once, the pipe routinely would have been stored as a single object. Now, Goff explains, the museum has learned that, when assembled, the pipe constitutes a living thing in tribal belief. And it respects the tribe’s wishes that the stem and bowl be separated for storage.

“When they’re together,” Goff says, “the pipe is alive and ready to be used.”

The museum’s attention to formerly ignored aspects of Native American culture reveals just one facet of an evolving relationship that underwent a tectonic shift nearly 30 years ago when the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, often referred to as NAGPRA, became law. Since then — even before, really — Colorado has stood among the national leaders in its efforts to atone for a history of exploiting, and often misunderstanding, objects of tribal culture.

Acknowledging years of distrust, museums across the state hosting huge collections like History Colorado or the Denver Museum of Nature & Science — or smaller ones, like those at schools from Fort Lewis College to the University of Denver — collectively embraced something larger than the law itself.

The result has been more open dialogue, though not always easy conversation, and significant steps toward a more inclusive approach to preserving tribal history and returning both human remains and culturally sensitive objects to their rightful place.

Goff, who retired last month after 11 years as History Colorado’s NAGPRA liaison with tribal representatives and curator of archaeology and ethnography, continued the legacy of progress. She acknowledges that she benefited from key work from her predecessors. But she also helped break new ground in the often difficult area of determining how to deal with culturally unidentifiable human remains discovered in the course of the region’s continued development.

Sheila Goff handles the bowl of a Ute pipe at History Colorado in Denver. The museum stores the bowl apart from the stem, at the tribe’s request, because once assembled the pipe becomes a living thing in tribal belief. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Terry Knight, historical preservation officer for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe who has tracked progress on the repatriation front since before NAGPRA, says that relationships grew even stronger on Goff’s watch.

“She came to understand what we were talking about, and therefore was very instrumental in working with us and returning those items that should be returned,” he says. “People like her are willing to listen and understand what we say is true. It would be great if museums in other states had people like her. There’s only one of her, though, and she did what she could. We realize and appreciate her effort.”

Goff’s position will be filled after a national search, the museum says.

“Whoever is going to pick up her position has a really big job to do,” Knight adds, “because she worked hard to establish the working relationship with people affected by the work we did. I’m sorry she wanted to retire. But things go on.”

Museum officials at other institutions saw Goff as a mentor. Anne Amati, NAGPRA coordinator and registrar at the University of Denver’s Museum of Anthropology, says Goff taught her not to make assumptions, but to ask questions. She also learned that “this work is possible, necessary and satisfying.”

“Sheila has been a great resource for me,” says Amati, who will continue to work with Goff on a three-year project. “She’s quiet, happy to sort of be in the background. But people who know her know how dedicated she is and how much work goes into this. Like a lot of museum work, you do it best when you make it look easy.”

Both colleagues and tribal workers praise Goff’s role in nurturing relationships that both restore dignity to Native Americans but also lead to more honest and accurate exhibits that preserve history while serving as a reminder that Colorado’s tribes remain vital.

“What it comes down to,” says Chip Colwell, senior curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, “is implementation of a law is successful or not based on the people doing the work. … It really requires people to not just follow the letter of the law but to embrace the spirit of it. To me, that’s the common denominator in Colorado.”

He points to Goff’s work at History Colorado, continuing repatriation efforts at Fort Lewis College in Durango, at the University of Denver and at the University of Colorado Boulder — as well as at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science — as institutions that embraced the federal law as a means for atoning for centuries of wrongdoing.

“It allows institutions to not just work mechanically,” he explains, “but really to try to do the right thing, to try new ways to honor and respect Native Americans and build a new kind of relationship that allows us to mend the wounds of the past and also build a new way for museums to celebrate Native American culture and history.”

As for her own ability to work collaboratively with tribes and earn their trust, Goff credits lessons she learned as a student at CU Boulder while sitting in on discussions between the university’s museum personnel and tribal experts.

“The openness, the honesty and transparency on the side of the museum, respect for the ideas that tribal representatives and cultural experts are sharing with you, those are all things that are critical to making this work,” Goff says. “Listening. Really listening.”

She spent 20 years teaching English as a second language all over the world before her interest in archeology led her to a second career in museums. But her first career provided some valuable grounding, “because I’d already developed a sensitivity to other people’s cultural ideas and ways of life.”

Ernest House Jr., former director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs and a member of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, underscores the sensitivity of dealing with artifacts and remains, which trigger strong spiritual and emotional reactions beyond their historical and anthropological value.

“Archeologists will tell you my people, the Utes, have been in Colorado for the last 10-12,000 years,” says House, now
senior policy director of Keystone Policy Center. “When you go through a museum and see all the elements of history and culture, a lot of times our tribe never knew they were there. The way they’ve been displayed over the years, we’ve seen how that can be done in a negative way.”

One notable case in point: “Esther,” the remarkably intact and mummified remains of a native woman from the Basketmaker II era, estimated to be nearly 2,000 years old, that were on display at Mesa Verde National Park from the summer of 1939 until the early 1970s. The woman, estimated to have been about 20 when she died, had been discovered in a cave in Falls Creek Canyon near Durango and illegally removed by an amateur archaeologist. But the find also captured the interest of professional archaeologists and eventually Esther was displayed across the state and around the country before she wound up at Mesa Verde National Park.

She became a nationally-known attraction for tourists. Still, it wasn’t until the early ’70s that the park removed her from display — to much public disappointment — and put her into storage. In 2013, Esther was reburied at an undisclosed location under the aegis of the Hopi tribe and the Pueblo of Acoma.

Kathy Fine-Dare, professor emeritus of anthropology at Fort Lewis College in Durango and chair of the school’s NAGPRA committee, notes that Esther was buried along with other remains and funerary objects curated by the college and that lessons left by her decades-long display touch on respect and accuracy.

“The lesson would be that before making decisions, consult with tribal people,” Fine-Dare says. “And consult with diverse tribal people. One of the objections to her being removed from display was that some Native Americans enjoyed seeing her and felt a connection with their past. It’s not even the case that all native people objected to her being on display, but the fact that the decisions regarding her removal from her place of rest and being put on display were made by non-native people. That’s the issue more than anything else.”

Additionally, Esther and other remains displayed at Mesa Verde weren’t even from the time frame and location of the park’s exhibit. “But it was out of interest in commerce and PR that they were there,” Fine-Dare adds.

Times have changed. House credits individuals like Goff and her colleagues, representing the vantage point of archeology or anthropology, for a willingness to come to the table with tribal leaders.

“Even if they don’t completely understand a tribal perspective, they’re open to sitting across the table for an opportunity for better education,” House says. “That’s where the conversation started to shift.”

Visitors to History Colorado survey part of the “Written on the Land” exhibit that showcases Colorado’s Ute tribes. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Beginnings of the conversation

In Colorado, the conversation predated the federal law that demanded it.

In the late 1970s, the Zuni tribe had begun to reclaim a type of highly revered wooden statues called war gods, which over the years had become the object of acquisition for collectors — and also for thieves. To the Zuni, these were not objects, but beings who resided in shrines to protect the people and keep the universe in balance, explains the Denver museum’s Colwell. (His book “Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits,” which includes a detailed explanation of the war gods controversy, was excerpted in The Colorado Sun.)

The Denver Art Museum held two in its collection. When the Zuni learned of this, they asked for their return. The request was a very different kind of claim than others at that time: the tribe had asked for the return of any and all war gods in collections across the country, the entire category.

Colwell says the Denver Art Museum resisted the request at first, but after the issue grew into a tense public controversy, its board agreed to return them. But even the return became complicated when the museum added a condition — they must be displayed in a museum.

“But for the Zuni, war gods need to live out in the open,” Colwell says. “Part of living is naturally degrading. The museum saw them as art objects that should be put behind glass. But to Zuni, they’d suffocate. It became a cultural clash over how to take care of war gods.”

In the end, there was compromise. The Denver Art Museum helped the tribe build a shrine that serves both purposes. At a location in New Mexico where more than 100 war gods have been returned — it took more than a decade before the last of them were repatriated — the shrine includes protective features like steel barriers, barbed wire and alarms, but it has been kept open on the top so that the statues remain exposed to the elements.


Chip Colwell, senior curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and author of “Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits.” (Handout)

“It was a lasting solution for the Zuni and a positive model that demonstrated that tribes and museums could work together on solutions that work for everyone,” Colwell says. “What they did in ’78-’79 was pivotal in the entire struggle. It really was a turning point. The Denver Art Museum was literally at the front lines of the repatriation battle in the ’70s.”

Then came NAGPRA.

The 1990 law gave lineal descendants rights to many Native American items in collections at federally funded institutions, including human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of continuing cultural or historical importance. Prior to the law, few museums had working relationships with Native American communities, which meant many assumed the worst: that tribes would empty museums of their collections.

“When NAGPRA became law, it was a scary time for museum professionals,” Colwell says. “For Native Americans, museums have historically not been an empowering place for them. They have been a place they didn’t feel sense of pride or even connection. There was a lot of uncertainty and fear on all sides.”

In Colorado, museums have dealt not only with tribes currently with reservations in the state, like the Southern Utes and Ute Mountain Utes (the Ute tribe of the Uintah-Ouray reservation resides in northeastern Utah) but with dozens more who at one time roamed the region. Through conversation and collaboration, they found plenty in common. All wanted to be good stewards of history and had a passion for cultural preservation. Over the next several years, mindsets shifted.

“Museums began to realize that working with Native Americans was a very positive thing for them,” Colwell says. “They weren’t trying to put museums out of business. They just wanted a say in how their own communities were presented.”

Jeffrey Blythe, the tribal historic preservation officer for the Jicarilla Apache Nation in Dulce, New Mexico, points out that it’s not just museums that have had to adapt since the advent of NAGPRA.

“The other part is that tribes have to adapt to find out how to handle this,” he says. “It hasn’t been easy for either side in this process. The NAGPRA issues are emotional.”

He also puts Colorado “on the upper end” in terms of its good faith interacting with tribes regarding collections. Blythe explains that though based in New Mexico, the Jicarilla Apache ranged into the Colorado Springs area, the Arkansas River drainage, South Park and all the way to southern high plains. History Colorado sent him images of everything they thought might be connected to the tribe, whether NAGPRA demanded it or not.

The museum’s policy served it well across the board. Goff notes that while History Colorado has often wound up returning items, it also gained from tribal input into the background of its still-robust inventory.

“Yes, we repatriated some things,” she says. “On the other hand, we know so much more about our collection than before. That knowledge spills out into exhibits, programs, educational curriculum. NAGPRA compliance, to me, has improved the relationships between descendant communities and this museum in all areas of work.”

Knight is one of those who has served as a kind of consultant on the museum’s exhibits.

“We have things that are looked at differently from what you call Western society,” Knight says. “Non-Indians have their own way of how they look at things, and it takes a while for them to understand what tribes are saying. People like Sheila came in, talked with us many times, understood what we were saying and would bridge the gap.”

House adds that ultimately it’s all about education and the tribes’ desire for people to understand an accurate interpretation of Native American history, from a tribal perspective. And that includes an accurate modern take as well.

“We want folks to know Utes are not forgotten,” he says. “We’re not a vanishing race.”

For all the collaboration between Colorado institutions and the state’s tribes, there have been missteps along the way.

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science fell out of NAGPRA compliance a few years after the law went into effect, Colwell says, but by 2007 it had recommitted to returning both ancestral remains and sacred objects. He adds that in the past decade or so, his institution has joined proactive state leaders like History Colorado, the University of Denver’s Museum of Anthropology and the University of Colorado Museum, which was one of the first in the nation to repatriate all of its human remains.

“All of them list repatriation as an ethical obligation to solve the very problems we created as institutions,” Colwell says. “Native Americans never asked for their graveyards to be looted. Rarely were sacred objects willingly parted with by the community. If I can speak for us collectively, we see repatriation as our responsibility of correcting errors and mistakes.”

Not that they don’t still occur.

Sheila Goff, recently retired from History Colorado, examines Native American artifacts in storage at the museum. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

History Colorado worked collaboratively with the Ute tribes to create exhibits both at the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose and in downtown Denver, where the museum’s “Written on the Land” display is one of its core exhibits that will remain open for years. In fact, Goff says, “the tribes told us they wanted to be involved in every decision.”

Then a budget issue arose. Previously, all parties had agreed on using a representation of a wickiup, a shelter built with brush, on the exterior of the museum. It was a costly proposition and the museum wanted to use three, one to represent each of the Ute tribes. But when it ran the costs, it realized that three would be too expensive.

So History Colorado unilaterally decided to eliminate all of them rather than risk slighting any of the tribes.

“Then when we went into consultations and the tribes saw they were all removed, even though we explained the reason why, they were very upset,” Goff recalls. “It was a very bad day at that point in time, but also a very learning experience. We learned. The hard way.”

The misunderstanding emphasized the importance of developing trust and good working relationships over time. Ultimately, the issue was resolved.

“All you can do is ask for some guidance and apologize for making the wrong assumption,” Goff says. “The good news is that we have worked with them for so long, it was not a deal breaker. They knew our hearts were in the right place. We just didn’t listen.”

The History Colorado museum, reflected in the windows of a downtown Denver building, features the banner for the “Written on the Land” exhibit. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Listening to tribal concerns

There have been important times when museum officials have listened particularly well.

House, the former CCIA director, gives Goff and History Colorado high marks for bringing stakeholders together, including more than 45 tribes that inhabited the state at various times, to develop a protocol for a particularly vexing problem: how to repatriate what museums call CUIs — culturally unidentifiable individuals — in a more timely and sensitive way.

He points out that each year in Colorado between 10 and 15 sets of Native American remains are discovered inadvertently — whether during installation of a new pipeline, a farmer plowing a field on the plains, the construction of a mountain home or even families hiking trails on the Front Range. Those discoveries are channeled to History Colorado through the office of the state archeologist, and the NAGPRA process begins.

Prior to the development of a state protocol, House recalls, the inventory of CUIs grew into the hundreds, and tribes’ frustration at the lengthy process grew with it. But after three years of collaboration among History Colorado, the CCIA and the state’s two Ute tribes, the process was altered — to fit within both state and federal law — so tribes could be consulted more quickly and the remains could be properly returned to the ground.

“In so many tribal cultures and history, one thing is loud and clear — the belief that unless remains are placed back in the ground, spirits can’t continue the path of whatever the tribal belief system may be on to another spirit world,” House says. “We took that seriously.”

The process basically works like this: After law enforcement has ruled out forensic interest and determined the remains are both Native American and more than 100 years old, a burial investigation and consensus on a plan of action ensues. If the remains can’t be left where they are and protected, or buried nearby, then tribes from the region are notified and the remains moved to History Colorado for NAGPRA compliance.

After research and consultation with the tribes, the remains are either identified as affiliated with a tribe or culturally unidentifiable. For the latter, Colorado’s two Ute tribes take the lead in transfer and burial. Tribes may request further analysis, but only of a non-destructive nature.

A few years later came another important breakthrough. Around 2012, the two Ute tribes with reservations in Colorado — the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute — approached History Colorado with growing frustration. Although many sets of remains were being repatriated, it had become difficult for the tribes to find appropriate land to rebury those remains once the legal process had concluded.

The museum became a partner, with state and federal land managers, in finding locations where remains could be buried in proximity to where they had been found.

Colwell calls formulating the solution to those problems a “herculean task” that History Colorado navigated successfully.

“I know of no other state in the country that has such a seamless process that works well for all the stakeholders,” he says. “It’s a model for the rest of the country. On that, they’ve very much been a leader.”

Even as museums and tribes work to correct past mistakes, new challenges emerge. One of the most prominent has come in the area of DNA research, where technology has advanced so quickly and so remarkably that sequencing ancient DNA genomes has gone from impossible to commonplace.

Modern methods can provide researchers a window onto ancient migration patterns, diseases, relationships between ancient and contemporary people. But just as in other aspects of modern life, ethics have failed to keep pace with technology. Colwell says the development is “pushing us toward an ethical crisis in the field.”

Many Native American tribes disapprove of the destruction of their ancestors’ remains — such as DNA extraction can do — and some scientists now seek samples from museums.

“It really has changed the game in that technology is allowing us to answer the old questions in new ways,” Colwell says. “But at the same time, it’s bringing back many of ethical problems that popped up in the ’60s and ’70s. Instead of learning the lessons of the past, we’re basically repeating many of the same mistakes.”

Goff notes that History Colorado has agreed not to participate in destructive analysis. “If it ever comes to a point in time where the tribes want to do that, we’ll make that change,” she says. “But right now we do not.”

Native American artifacts in storage at History Colorado in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Many remains left to be repatriated

Two hundred and thirty-eight years.

That’s Colwell’s estimate of low long it would take, at the current rate, for all the museums in the United States to address just the Native American human remains that haven’t been repatriated. For the fiscal year ended in September of 2017, the most current report, there were 185,475 sets of human remains listed in NAGPRA inventories.

“That’s not including millions of grave goods, sacred objects, new discoveries every time a new road or pipeline goes in and you have a real risk of running across an ancient cemetery,” Colwell adds. “Also, that’s not including international issues.”

The number serves as his reality check on the thought that we might really be getting a handle on this repatriation issue. Yes, he admits, Colorado is ahead of the curve. But repatriation will be an ongoing part of what museums do far into the future. It’s an all-encompassing mix of competing — and sometime conflicting — elements that ultimately define who we are and who we want to be.

“It’s history, but it’s politics,” he says. “It’s law, but it’s ethics. It’s science, but it’s spirituality. It takes all these issues and puts them in a crucible. They have to battle each other out to find what’s the right thing to do. And it’s all in the context of museums, these beloved institutions at the heart of our communities.”

Similarly, the successes Colorado has seen while implementing the federal law — and improving on it — also speak to our definition of who we want to be. Goff, as she heads into retirement, points to the people she has worked with, from museum colleagues committed to correcting past transgressions to active and dedicated tribal leadership, as the partnership that has made things work, despite the occasional conflict.

And while History Colorado has repatriated all of its historic remains, the museum’s role as the repository for new discoveries means that there’s still much to be done.

“It’s not over,” Goff says. “The work will continue.”

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