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Ward Churchill and skeletons in the closet

Anne Hyde/Writers on the Range

Last spring, the now-infamous Ward Churchill, University of Colorado professor of ethnic studies, gave a talk at Colorado College about the contents of our institutional closets. He claimed that we had the bones of 139 people – all native Americans – hidden on campus.

Churchill used this number to demonstrate the college’s complicity in the crime of grave-robbing that has plagued native groups all over North America. These charges worried me, and I did some asking around, which, of course, is just what Churchill hoped would happen.

I found that Churchill didn’t know the whole story, though he came close. The college was completing the complex process of repatriating bones and sacred objects, which means returning them to the tribes they came from.

Churchill was right in that the college had “owned” a significant collection of human remains, and he was right to question the ease with which bone-hunters and collectors in the late 19th and early 20th century wandered onto Native American lands and dug up bones, pots, rocks and other objects by the truckload. Soon, museums and universities all over the U.S. contained the dead relatives of native people.

The numbers are impressive: A small city of the dead, at last count 110,000 individuals, now resides in federal and private museums.

The story of these skeletons housed at Colorado College – how they got there, and how they are now being returned – reflects a major change in the way we deal with this issue. Like many other institutions, Colorado College collected human remains. Many came to the college as part of archaeological research by faculty, and others were donated by alumni, local citizens, or other colleges and museums. For much of Colorado Springs’ history, Colorado College had the only museum in town, so the college ended up with a significant collection of archaeological remains and displayed them in a large campus museum.

It’s hard, now, to understand why scholars and the institutions they represented found it desirable to dig up, study, hoard and display the bones and sacred objects of other people’s dead relatives. It seems ghoulish, but there are very real benefits from this research to human life: Scientists who study bones can learn amazing things about what people ate, how diseases spread, how humans metabolize toxic chemicals, and how people treated each other in the past. Ironically, many of these bones, collected to show hard and fast racial boundaries, are now used as evidence of the plasticity of genetic variability.

But now, because of the vehement objections of living people, the great grave-robbing spree has ended. What’s left are closets filled with bones, and it’s a messy process for an institution to figure out an ethical course of action. The legislation in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed in 1990, gave institutions a mandate to return bones and funerary objects to their rightful places.

The problem of how and where to return all of the remains, many of which were unlabeled, unnamed, unclaimed, remains a challenge. At Colorado College, which had closed its museum in the 1960s, and sent most of its collections to other places in the state, no one considered that the federal law would apply. But when the college’s legal counsel, Loretta Martinez, discovered in 2002 that the college still possessed remains of native people, she began the process of repatriation.

With the help of faculty anthropologists and a consultant, we found the bones of 39 individuals and determined the cultural affiliation of 36 of them. Most came from the Colorado Plateau. Once an inventory was completed, the college contacted tribes in the region to see who could take the remains. Not all tribes can take on this task, which involves complex negotiation, expense and red tape, as well as cultural minefields. But some tribal groups have become experts on how to repatriate people in appropriate ways.

The Southern Utes and the Hopi, in the case of Colorado College’s skeletons, agreed to repatriate individuals who had come from the region that these tribes now occupy. Over the past year, the college has assisted the tribes with transfer and reburial, part of the process required by federal law.

It will take more time before all the skeletons have been removed from our closets, but making sure these individuals are returned to the right places with the right procedures requires time and care. The people we dug up without much concern a century ago deserve at least that much.


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