Chip Colwell. Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture. 336pp., 10 halftones, notes, index. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. $30 (cloth), $18 (e-book)
During highway construction, twenty-eight sets of human remains are found. Twenty-six of the bodies are reburied in a nearby cemetery but two skeletons, a woman and her baby, are not—instead, they are given over to the state archaeologist. What accounts for the difference? Is it that the skeletons of twenty-six white people are not interesting to archaeological study? Or is it that the thought of reburying Native American remains when they could be studied is somehow a violation of our dedication to knowledge of the past?
This scenario captures the fraught logic of preservation that undergirds US museum policies toward American Indian artifacts and remains, which sits at the heart of Chip Colwell’s new book, Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture. The book offers a nuanced analysis of the stakes of repatriation for Native communities, which seek to retrieve objects and bones, and museum curators and archaeologists, who conceptualize themselves as the stewards of America’s past and the protectors of precious scientific data.
The book is part history, part memoir, part ethnography. Colwell illustrates the groundswell of Native activism in the 1970s that sought the repatriation of Native remains and artifacts, and details the political and legal challenges that Native activists brought to museums that resisted the return of Native objects. Colwell brings these historical repatriation efforts into conversation with his own experience as a curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and the efforts to communicate and collaborate with tribal groups in the wake of Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
Colwell balances the perspectives of Native communities on the one hand and museum staff and archeologists on the other. Most chapters open with an epigraph from each camp, which give a bit of underlying emotional material underlying the repatriation debates. This is not to say that Native and museum/archaeology positions are dichotomous, but even as Colwell conveys the nuanced positions of repatriation activists and preservationists, he shows that “common ground is so elusive because every object contains within it the seeds of conflict that have germinated over the decades between religious freedom and academic freedom, spiritual truths and scientific facts, moral rights and legal duties, preserving historical objects and perpetuating living cultures” (8).
Four case studies show the difficulty of finding common ground. Each of the four cases addresses the negotiation over a set of objects and its eventual repatriation to Native communities. The first, on statues of Zuni deities called “War Gods,” illustrates that early twentieth century anthropologists and collectors sought sacred objects even as they knew the Zuni would object to their public display. These fieldworkers justified their efforts in part because the War Gods would eventually decay if left in the open. Colwell shows that this logic of preservation survived well into the century and often explicitly ignored indigenous concepts, such as that of the Zuni notion that “all things will eat themselves up” and humans are better left out of the natural process of decay.
Colwell’s second case study revolves around human remains, specifically Cheyenne and Arapahoe scalps collected during the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre. The author uses the short-chapter format to good effect here, as the reader is taken from a gruesome historical account of the slaughter to the latter-day identification of and negotiation for the scalps (and other human remains) of Native men, women, and children kept by museums. He threads his discussion of the repatriation of human remains through NAGPRA with internal tribal discourse over the potential that they might re-bury their enemies alongside their ancestors. Tribal anxiety in this regard is underscored by the sheer number of unclaimed, unidentified Native remains that sit in museum storage—now merely resting in sepulchers for trophy scalps transformed into scientific objects.
The third case study revolves around Tlingit ceremonial objects that had been sold to shady dealers. Colwell addresses notions of communal ownership, which are often evoked in repatriation cases when ceremonial or historical objects are extracted and sold by tribal members. This raises the interesting problem of commoditization: If an individual can render an object salable, can alternative notions of property counter the potential incentive to sell heritage objects?
The last case study focuses on the difficulty of the repatriation of Calusa Indian skulls, which is a conundrum because the Calusa are (from the perspective of archaeology) an extinct indigenous group and thus there is no group legally entitled to receive the skulls. Colwell explains that expansive notions of kinship, which run counter to Anglo-American norms, can overturn the dubious claim by some archaeologists (famous in the case of Kennewick man) that remains unrelated to present Native groups should be considered government property.
Colwell is an excellent writer, and he presents the actors in his study as complicated human beings that, even if fallible and fickle, can still convey coherent, reasoned positions. He clearly favors repatriation, as anyone should, but fairly analyzes the perspectives of curators and anthropologists who conceive themselves to be stewards of the past such that all peoples can derive meaning from it.
One issue that Colwell could have explored in more depth is the role of museums as producers of scientific knowledge. Many of the objects in the study have been removed from public view, and thus ostensibly only accessible by “experts.” But we do not learn the range of scientific justifications for keeping Zuni War Gods or Calusa skulls in museums, except some vague prediction that future scientific methods might unravel their mysteries even further. Why do museums protect things from decay, even if they rest in vaults, out of public view, for decades? What scientific advance do they believe they are waiting for?
We also don’t hear much about possible strategies that engage with object replication for museum use. Perhaps bones cannot be replicated for osteological study (and craniometry is already an outdated museological aesthetic), but what are the politics of replication of Native objects in museums? How can museum professionals work with Native communities to design thorough and respectful representations of past peoples and their lifeways, perhaps without the use of “authentic” objects?
My hunch is that Colwell has smart answers to these questions, but the popular mode taken in the book forecloses deep engagement with them without singling out scholars and museums that rest on the other side of NAGPRA and repatriation gestures. Overall, the story is one of a beginning—a beginning to make amends for past wrongs. This is a noble gesture, then, because it argues that scholars who work with Native communities and care deeply about preservation of the past must consider the emotional consequences of ethnographic collections.
Ultimately, Colwell’s book suggests that, sometimes, personal attachment to concepts such as scientific progress and historical preservation blinds us to the feelings and commitments of other human beings. This may mean, indeed, that objects and skulls are removed from their position in “standing reserve” for future analytical techniques. Not all data is sacred. Or, perhaps: because other meaning-making traditions have historical and moral claims on many of these objects, this “data” was sacred to someone in the first place. Let science not profane it.