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A man leans against a wall in a museum with exhibits behind him
Western Colorado University professor Mark Stiger stands amid an exhibit in the anthropology department that acknowledges the looting of artifacts that has taken place in the Four Corners region of southwestern Colorado and the damage it has caused to ancient sites by destroying their cultural and anthropological integrity. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

GUNNISON — In the early 1990s, when Mark Stiger first unpacked what’s known as the Peterson collection, the anthropology professor found more than 100 objects wrapped in decades-old newspaper and stuffed in cardboard whiskey and grocery boxes, stacked and nearly forgotten in a stairwell on the Western Colorado University campus.

When he peeled away the paper and saw a human skull, and ultimately the remains of 25 individuals among about 100 other cultural objects, the discovery triggered an almost visceral reaction.

“It was embarrassing,” Stiger recalls, noting how much attitudes had changed after federal law created the first template for repatriation of culturally identifiable remains and disposition of those whose origins remained a mystery.

The objects had been amassed by a man who lived in the southwestern corner of Colorado in the 1920s and ’30s. When he died in the 1940s, he left the collection to his brother, an alumnus of what then was known as Western State College of Colorado.

In 1946, the brother offered the collection to his alma mater. Under the direction of C.T. Hurst, one of the founders of the Colorado Archeological Society, the school had opened a museum in the 1930s that displayed regional artifacts before Hurst’s death in 1949. 

Eventually, that museum was dismantled to make space for other needs — the school’s current C.T. Hurst Museum opened in 2001 in an addition to the hall named for him — and the Peterson collection was relegated to boxes for nearly 40 years, until Stiger joined the faculty in 1989. At one point in the 1970s, the school loaned some of the collection to a researcher at the University of Colorado who left the school before completing his analysis — leaving the pieces sitting in Boulder until Stiger showed up to retrieve them.

But as attitudes about the wanton acquisition of tribal remains and cultural objects shifted with adoption of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, in 1990, Stiger sought to return the remains to tribal control.

He faced one particular obstacle right off the bat — there was no inventory by the original collector to indicate exactly where the remains were collected, and by extension which tribes might rightfully lay claim to them. The glassy glaze on some of the ceramic artifacts pointed toward a type often found around Durango and Ignacio, but beyond that there were no concrete clues to their origin.

At some point in the mid to late ’90s, the school contracted an archaeologist to do a museum inventory, which was sent to national NAGPRA officials, as required, and Stiger sent a letter detailing the collection to every federally recognized tribe in the country. The system then allowed tribal representatives to make an official claim on any of the items. Nobody did.

Two pots are seen on a shelf surrounded by stacks of boxes labeled with artifacts and remains.
Western Colorado University has about 250,000 artifacts in its collection, including human remains donated 80 years ago. The university will use an $81,000 grant from the National Park Service to help return the remains and some of the artifacts to Native American tribes under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

But Stiger had developed a working relationship with the Southern Ute Tribe during archaeological work in the area. He got in touch with his contact, who expressed interest and agreed to receive the collection.

Stiger boxed it up and got ready to make the drive to the reservation. But just before he left, he says, the state archaeologist’s office called with second thoughts about transferring the collection without following strict NAGPRA protocol. He recalls that the misgivings seemed vague, as the law was still in its early stages.

“We weren’t really sure what we needed to do, but we weren’t doing it the right way,” Stiger says. “And at that point, with the legislation the way it was, the rules were not very clear.”

The collection stayed put.

Meanwhile, David Hyde arrived at Western in 2011 as a lecturer in anthropology who helped found the master’s program in gallery and museum management. His introduction to the Peterson collection came in 2018 as he worked on renewing the Hurst museum’s certification.

“I knew we had some (remains) but I didn’t really know how many,” Hyde says. “When I got in there to work I saw what we had and at that point it was like, these individuals need to go home. We need to make this happen.”

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the pause button on the process, but last fall the school began writing a grant proposal to revive its efforts. In August, the National Park Service announced it had awarded the school $81,000, launching what’s anticipated to be a two-year project to return the remains to their most likely descendants.

It started earlier this month with outreach to 68 tribes. Four responded with interest in collaborating with Western: the Southern Ute Tribe, Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe and the Pueblo of Zia.

Sheldon Lucero, the historic preservation officer for Pueblo of Zia, southwest of Santa Fe, says the tribe probably fields over 200 inquiries a year regarding remains and artifacts, and as a “sister tribe” to the Hopi will support their decision on the collection at WCU.

In terms of what the tribes will be looking for, he notes that they’ll try to determine if they’re related to Ancestral Puebloans “or basically the location of where those remains came from, if they have funeral objects with them. The Pueblo would like to get everything back to where it rightfully belongs.”

A man plays a clay flute while another looks on
Stiger, right, blows through an ancient Native American flute while professor David Hyde watches. The flute is part of the university’s collection of Native American artifacts. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Peterson collection represents just a fraction of the quarter-million artifacts in the university’s collection, but easily the most problematic possessions as museums and other institutions began to grapple with the cultural reckoning brought on by historic theft and abuse of Indigenous remains and cultural artifacts.

Yet few on campus knew about the collection. WCU President Brad Baca has worked at the school for 21 years in various capacities before gaining his current position a little more than a year ago. And while he knew there were local and regional artifacts stored there, he doesn’t recall ever hearing that the contents included human remains.

The grant, he says, has helped create a teachable moment that the school should leverage.

“How we engage in conversation with these nations, that’s a fascinating opportunity and experience for people to learn how we communicate,” Baca says, “how we outreach, how we have conversations and how we work together to solve a problem.”

Inside Hurst Hall, a display of native pottery and other artifacts rests under a placard that reads “A Series of Unfortunate Lootings” — posted by students in a graduate course as an allusion to a popular series of children’s novels, and a clear indicator of evolution in the study of anthropology and archeology. 

Hyde’s instruction on archeology began in the late ’90s, on the early edge of what he calls the “NAGPRA era,” when his classes were framed by an entirely new way of thinking about Native remains and artifacts. And so he developed as a professional with that point of reference, even as institutions and tribal leadership were not yet equipped to deal with the coming influx of cultural materials and inquiries about repatriation or disposition.

“Back in the 1990s as all of this is starting to unfold in the first wave of claims and so forth, and these inventories are being completed, many university museums were understaffed and lacked resources to really do a lot of this,” Hyde says. “Same with a lot of the tribes — they had some tribal historic preservation officers and things like that dealing with cultural resources, heritage issues and so forth. But they didn’t have any experience with repatriation (of remains). So it was just sort of learning on the fly.”

When Stiger started at Western in 1989, the school hadn’t kept close track of its museum collections, which led to his surprise when he first dug into the nearly forgotten boxes holding the Peterson collection.

“It was amazing,” he recalls. “The collection was still wrapped in newspapers. There was one that I unwrapped, the story in the paper said something about Hitler’s body still not identified, or not found — so it was from 1945 or ’46. And this was in the ’90s that we did this. And talk about headhunters. Pretty much the only things they collected were people’s heads, and then the grave goods.

“We don’t know if (Peterson) just went after graves or he just dug up the whole house or the whole village. And so the 100 or so ceramic items that are part of the Peterson collection, some of it probably was with the individuals in their graves. Some of it may not have been. I mean, we just don’t know.”

Hyde notes that, in archaeological terminology, it has no “provenience” — place of discovery or origin. 

“Instead,” he says, “what we have is just a collection of bones and individual skulls, and this pottery, and no other information aside from (Peterson) lived in Durango and dug this up from around where he lived.”

Although the precise sources of the remains are unknown, Stiger explains that the pseudo-science of the era when they were looted sheds unflattering light on the motivation for excavation and preservation. In the absence of knowledge about genetics, he says, skull measurements were believed to be an important factor that revealed clues to human traits, a “racist science” employed to justify social hierarchies.

Hyde notes that the literature of the early 1900s leaning on skull measurements as scientific indicators coincides with the time frame of the Peterson collection.

“We now know, with scientific research, that doesn’t mean a thing,” Stiger says. “But you could tell that’s why those particular items were being collected. And that’s embarrassing. Because it’s silly, it’s wrong. But that’s what people did at that time.”

A man kneeling in museum storage, holding a black and white pot
Hyde, who helped the master’s program gallery and museum management at Western Colorado University, holds a black and white pot created about 1250 A.D. in one of the storage areas for Western’s collection of Native American artifacts. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

By the time Hyde came on staff, Stiger says he was “completely burned out” on the Peterson collection, and gladly passed the torch to his colleague.

“I never could figure out exactly what I was supposed to do,” Stiger says, recalling his initial effort to give the remains to the Southern Utes. “You’re so close, so close to having those (remains) down there and making everybody happy, except the bureaucrats.

“And then I had to call (the tribe) and say no, we’re not going to do that,” he adds. “Obviously, this sort of thing is a culturally sensitive subject. And when you tell somebody you’re going to do something and return things, and then all of a sudden you tell them no, I’m not, it can come off as not being cooperative. And I felt really bad about that.”

The Peterson collection remains in limbo — little known even to many of the students who pass near its repository in Hurst Hall on the eastern edge of the campus. The items aren’t used for teaching and research, though their troubling presence does provide a chance to impart to students the necessity of NAGPRA at a time when repatriation or disposition of remains and artifacts has gained momentum worldwide.

The current grant money, attached to what’s known as a national network consultation grant, will cover travel and expenses as the university engages tribal leaders to review the collection, both remains and artifacts. First, Western will visit the tribes with an inventory and answer questions. Next, Hyde says, they’ll work out “some of the more sensitive issues,” such as how they would like the remains to be treated. Should items be photographed? How should they be stored?

Then the tribal representatives will visit Gunnison — perhaps together, perhaps individually. After that comes the paperwork of filing claims with national NAGPRA, including resolution of any claims or disputes among the tribes that might arise.

Once those 25 sets of remains have been addressed, WCU has another 15 sets whose origins are even murkier — some may not even be of Native American ancestry — and would require further research, and perhaps more grant funding, to determine their final disposition.

“My hope is that doing this process with the Peterson collection right now with this grant is just the first step and a whole lot more consultation, and sort of shared authority and interaction with tribal members to see if there’s anything else in the collection that they may want to come home,” he says. “And, if so, we will work to facilitate that.”

At this point, Hyde adds, it’s not about science or research. 

“It’s human rights legislation for Native Americans,” he says, “for them to have some agency again, control over what happens to their ancestors. Opening that door, this is just that first step of hopefully a long relationship of gaining back trust and working on healing.”

A small clay jar in the hands of a man
Hyde holds a small jar dated about 1200 A.D., one of 250,000 Native American artifacts in Western Colorado University’s collection. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Kevin Simpson is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a general assignment writer and editor. He also oversees the Sun’s literary feature, SunLit, and the site’s cartoonists. A St. Louis native and graduate of the University of Missouri’s...