Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America's Culture

Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America's Culture

by Chip Colwell

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Who owns the past and the objects that physically connect us to history? And who has the right to decide this ownership, particularly when the objects are sacred or, in the case of skeletal remains, human? Is it the museums that care for the objects or the communities whose ancestors made them? These questions are at the heart of Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits, an unflinching insider account by a leading curator who has spent years learning how to balance these controversial considerations.

Five decades ago, Native American leaders launched a crusade to force museums to return their sacred objects and allow them to rebury their kin. Today, hundreds of tribes use the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to help them recover their looted heritage from museums across the country. As senior curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Chip Colwell has navigated firsthand the questions of how to weigh the religious freedom of Native Americans against the academic freedom of scientists and whether the emptying of museum shelves elevates human rights or destroys a common heritage. This book offers his personal account of the process of repatriation, following the trail of four objects as they were created, collected, and ultimately returned to their sources: a sculpture that is a living god, the scalp of a massacre victim, a ceremonial blanket, and a skeleton from a tribe considered by some to be extinct. These specific stories reveal a dramatic process that involves not merely obeying the law, but negotiating the blurry lines between identity and morality, spirituality and politics.

Things, like people, have biographies. Repatriation, Colwell argues, is a difficult but vitally important way for museums and tribes to acknowledge that fact—and heal the wounds of the past while creating a respectful approach to caring for these rich artifacts of history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226299044
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/08/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Chip Colwell is the senior curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. His work has been highlighted in such venues as the New York TimesDenver PostHuffington Post, and C-SPAN, and his books include Living Histories: Native Americans and Southwestern Archaeology and Inheriting the Past: The Making of Arthur C. Parker and Indigenous Archaeology.

Read an Excerpt

Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits

Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America's Culture

By Chip Colwell

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 Chip Colwell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-29904-4



They call it scientific research. They call it educational opportunity. But if it happened to any other people, it would be called grand larceny.

Michael S. Haney, United Indian Nations in Oklahoma

The Indian — as a savage — is soon to disappear.

R. Stewart Culin, 1900, museum curator

At the end of the dirt road, at the edge of a desolate mesa, we approach the sacred shrine. It looks like a beautiful one-room prison. A windowless building made of heavy burnt-orange sandstone blocks. Sharp steel spikes shoot vertically from the roof, threaded with jagged barbed wire.

We park the car and step into the New Mexico summer. There is no one around, just a hawk circling high in the far distance gazing down on the Zuni Indian Reservation. I have worked with Perry Tsadiasi for a decade, but never before had he invited me to visit this shrine dedicated to the twin gods of war. "I want you to see this," Perry tells me now. "To have it in your mind when you write your book."

As we near the shrine, Perry points out a small mound of thin, delicate flakes of dazzling turquoise covering the ground like emerald snow. These are sacred offerings — along with finely ground cornmeal that has since blown away or been eaten by insects — made by Zunis who regularly visit the shrine. On the structure's east side is a narrow doorway made from heavy steel and thick rebar. Perry takes the bulky lock into his left hand while removing a key from his pocket. He is the keeper of the only key.

Peering inside, I can see the structure's walls are lined with flat, neatly trimmed sandstone pieces. Perry explains how a steel cage was constructed off-site, and then lowered into position with a crane. Sandstone was built up around the cage, but it was left roof-less — unless you consider the spaced bars and barbed wire a "roof" — to ensure that the War Gods are protected from theft but left exposed to nature. The building is an architectural contradiction: a conscious attempt to ensure that the War Gods are safe as they decay.

We enter and stand before an altar surrounded by the War Gods.

Dozens of Ahayu:da, as they are called in the Zuni language, are tightly packed together, standing upright, like passengers in a subway car at rush hour. Made from pieces of wood cut about waist high, the Ahayu:da are carved into abstract human form with a pointed cap, heavy brow, deep-set eyes, sharp nose and chin, and a protruding umbilical cord. The feathers and other regalia that once clothed the twin brothers are long gone, lost or rotted away.

"There are 106 Ahayu:da here," Perry says. "I helped bring all them back home."

I notice that the statues are ashen gray, in different stages of decomposition, worn down from years of sun and heat, rain and snow. Some have retained their cylindrical form. Others are little more than fragments. As a museum curator, I'm supposed to be incensed to see these precious artifacts — these gods — disintegrating into literal dust.

Instead I can imagine no better place for them. I see the power of this shrine reflected in Perry's eyes. This holy site means the world to him. It means the survival of his people.

* * *

The theft of the largest number of War Gods to be held by a museum began, in large part, with R. Stewart Culin's ambitions. With only a high school diploma, Culin ascended the ranks of the museum world, first preparing exhibitions for the hugely successful world fairs in Spain, in 1892, and in Chicago the next year. At just thirty-four years old, Culin entered the Ivy League, appointed director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. He took full advantage of the post, laboring to transform the quiet, embryonic museum and bring it to international prominence. Photos made at the height of his power show Culin as dapper in a crisp three-piece suit, with shining eyes and a sly smile.

Culin wanted most to understand "the language of things," an obsession that fed his acclaimed exhibits of decorative arts. He evangelized that a museum should not display mere relics but, through careful presentation, preserve "the seed of things which may blossom and fruit again." By the turn of the new century, the amateur academic was accepted as a leading member of the new science of anthropology, the study of humankind.

In 1903 Culin left Philadelphia to become the inaugural curator of the newly established Department of Ethnology at the Brooklyn Museum. When he arrived in New York, Culin was charged with rapidly enlarging the museum's modest collections. Culin accepted the mission with zeal.

When he considered the most fertile collecting grounds, Culin was drawn to the unfinished business of his friend Frank H. Cushing, the legendary anthropologist who died suddenly in 1900. Twenty-one years earlier, Cushing had arrived in Zuni and stayed for nearly five years, immersing himself in Zuni culture. He learned the language. He became a clan member and was even initiated as a novice into the Priesthood of the Bow, a secret religious order whose members protect the Zuni people. Cushing documented his controversial metamorphosis into a "White Indian" in thick academic tomes and spellbinding popular articles. Cushing helped invent the science of anthropology by showing what could be learned if a scholar became fully immersed in a different culture.

Just two months after he began his job in Brooklyn, Culin took a train for Albuquerque to follow Cushing's path. "It led me to leave the East and turn my own steps to the Southwest and try to pick up and recover the broken clue," Culin declared in the dark months following his friend's death. "It became the dream of my life to go to Zuni and complete the work."

* * *

When Culin disembarked in western New Mexico at Zuni pueblo, he was troubled to see a culture fast expiring. Much had changed since Cushing's departure in 1884. The Zuni were now hemmed in by American settlers, their water sources diverted to neighboring farms and ranches. Their traditional culture was under relentless pressure from middling bureaucrats, schoolmasters, and missionaries. Just five years before Culin arrived, government officials had tried to prevent Bow Priests from carrying out their duties of maintaining order in the pueblo. To intimidate the priests, more than 100 troops from nearby Fort Wingate were dispatched to Zuni. The soldiers set up a camp for a year, flaunting their 12,000 rounds of ammunition and aiming a Hotchkiss gun at the defenseless mud and stone village. Four Bow Priests were arrested and imprisoned. After thirteen months, they were released without charges.

Culin was distressed enough by such events to protest an order by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that prohibited certain Indian traditions, like long hair for men and "face painting" for religious ceremonies. Culin condemned the order as cruel. (Although his main objection seems to have been that the edict would end Zuni customs before "the student of aboriginal customs and religion" could complete his work.) Culin became convinced that the Indian race would vanish in less than a generation.

Such a crisis presented certain opportunities, however. Culin was exceedingly pleased about the collecting prospects at Zuni. During his collecting trips in 1903, 1904, and 1907, he sought to buy just about anything that was old, drawing on New York's deep pockets. Culin gleefully reported that the Zuni were "crazy to sell" almost everything for just "five cents, the smallest coin." Culin picked up scores of games, musical instruments, agricultural implements, weapons. In 1903 alone, Culin brought back 4,615 objects to the Brooklyn Museum. One of Culin's colleagues, and a competitor, Matilda Coxe Stevenson of the Smithsonian Institution, complained that "Zunis have had their heads turned by those who have more money than we have." She pointed her finger at the Brooklyn curator. "Mr. Culin," Stevenson said, "has made the Zuni half crazy over money."

Because of his obsession with relics, Zunis caustically gave Culin the nickname Inotai — Old Thing.

Fueling Culin's goal was a series of misfortunes besetting the tribe. A smallpox epidemic had recently killed nearly 300 Zunis, 20 percent of the tribe's population. Then a severe drought struck and harvests failed. The Zuni had lost more than 80 percent of their traditional lands, limiting their ability to hunt and gather wild foods, long a safety valve for bad farming years. The people desperately needed money to buy food. In order to ensure their survival, Zunis sold what they could. "Many of the Indians had nothing to eat," Culin noted, "for my purchases were all presented to buy food each day."

Although desperate, the Zunis were reluctant to sell Culin what he desired above all: sacred objects. "The things which the scientific collector most admires," Culin wrote while at the pueblo, "cannot be legitimately disposed of." He was warned that sacred items were cared for by individuals but belonged to religious secret societies. They were not for sale. Even Culin's closest Zuni assistant made "a point of not selling masks, dolls, prayer sticks, and other sacred things."

When Bow Priests learned that Culin was trying to buy ceremonial objects, they ordered sentries to stop him. A missionary confided to Culin that in 1903 "men deputized for the purpose were constantly watching my purchases to see that no one sold me masks or ceremonial objects." He complained that a messenger "was sent through the village who shouted from housetop to housetop cautioning all against disposing of masks to me." A religious officer later went house to house to ensure that no masks were missing.

At first, Culin seemed to understand the limits of his grand ambitions. When he first saw a shrine of the War God in 1902, even Culin, the insatiable collector, insisted it be left intact. "He would be an iconoclast indeed," the Brooklyn curator wrote, "who would disturb this altar."

* * *

"It was only after night fall," Culin revealed, "when muffled figures would waylay me with whispers and gestures of secrecy, that I could conduct any important negotiations."

Despite the measures taken against him, Culin found ways to collect sacred objects. Cultural demise and food shortages were good for the collecting business. "With the decline of the old traditions," Culin claimed, "incidental to the influence of white contact and the Government school, the old shrines had been neglected, and only recently despoiled by Indians and their contents sold to traders. These sacred objects, which for the greater part remained in Zuni, were secured." In the end, Culin gathered for Brooklyn's storeroom thirteen War Gods — more than any other museum in the world.

Culin was particularly focused on collecting the War Gods that he believed came from one unguarded shrine on Dowa Yalanne, or Corn Mountain, situated just east of the pueblo. He believed all these Ahayu:da should belong together in one museum. He tracked down all of the Ahayu:da taken from that shrine and purchased them. Eight of the thirteen War Gods came from Andrew Vander Wagen, who arrived at Zuni in 1897 as a missionary but succeeded mainly in converting himself into a trader. Vander Wagen had reputedly taken the entire contents of three shrines and had paid Zunis to manufacture him nearly 100 ceremonial objects. The Brooklyn Museum purchased it all for $1,028. Culin relished that Zuni leaders were incensed over the contraband collection. Outrage was proof of its value. Culin sent Vander Wagen's collection thirty miles north to the town of Gallup, under the cover of the night, "when the outcry became so great."



Zuni call their home the Middle Place. It is easy for me to see why they believe it is the center of the world. It is a landscape of unsurpassed beauty — expansive plains interrupted by towering sandstone cliffs that rise like medieval citadels, encircled by pine-covered mountains, all under the sanctuary of a perennial azure sky.

According to tradition, the Zuni's most ancient ancestors emerged in the Grand Canyon. They climbed from beneath the earth, arriving at a sinuous waterfall that pours over a colossal boulder encrusted in green moss. There the ancestors began an epic journey in search of their destined homeland, the Middle Place. Scholars similarly believe in an ancient origin for the Zuni. Linguists estimate that the Zuni language — what is called an "isolate" because it has no relationship to any other known language — developed about 8,000 years ago. Archaeologists can trace Zuni culture through the centuries, their life as farmers settled in pueblos across the American Southwest, until they were forever changed in the summer of 1540. The Spanish conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, in his search for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold, arrived at Zuni. A battle ensued, igniting a clash with colonial powers that would last generations.

I am sitting in a decrepit hospital, converted into an office for the Zuni's historic preservation program, to speak with two religious leaders. Perry Tsadiasi wears a buttoned shirt and spotless white tennis shoes. Dense black hair, slicked back, frames his lined face. Perry is short, belying his religious stature in the tribe. More than seventy years old, he is a medicine man, a member of the Big Charcoal Medicine Society, and holds the high titles of a Rain Priest and the leader of the Bow Priesthood. Several decades ago there were forty A:pilha:shiwani — Bow Priests — at the pueblo. Today Perry is one of just two.

Next to him is Octavius Seowtewa. Approaching elder status at sixty years old, Octavius is built like a linebacker, though any intimidation is tempered by his soft voice and kind air. When not working on cultural projects or fulfilling his many religious duties, Octavius is busy making traditional jewelry and leading hunting expeditions. His hands and arms are covered in enigmatic tattoos, markings from his religious doings. He is descended from the Corn and Crane Clans, belongs to the Wide Wall Kiva, is a member of the Eagle Plume Down Medicine Society, and is a leader of the Galaxy Fraternity.

"Tell me about the Ahayu:da," I begin, careful to pronounce each syllable, ah-ha-YOU-dah.

Octavius answers that the Ahayu:da are twins, the children of Father-Sun and Mother-Water. The brothers were born in the foam of the ocean, before humans existed. Eons passed. Then, during their sojourn to the Middle Place, the people endured hardships and faced dangers. The twins' hearts were changed to the "medicine of war" to safely guide the Zuni to their pueblo home. The war gods became the Zuni's invincible guardians and created a society of warriors called the Bow Priesthood.

Each year on the winter solstice, wooden images of the twins are made. (In years past, they were also made for other Bow Priest ceremonials.) Octavius relates that a complex set of rituals conducted by a range of the tribe's religious men infuse the entire process — many of which can't be shared with an outsider like me — but he can broadly describe the process. The Deer Clan carves Uyuyewi, the elder twin image. The Bear Clan makes Ma'a'sewi, the younger brother. Offerings are made when the trees are selected. As they are carved — being born, as Octavius describes it — prayers are made and songs are sung. Zunis speak to the images just as they do to people; their development is described like a human, from infancy to adulthood. In turn, the War Gods speak the Zuni language. "Only the Zuni people and the Ahayu:da really understand one another," Octavius says.

After the Deer and Bear Clans make their "children," the twins rest at an altar in a Zuni religious house, and different rituals across the fraternities and societies are completed. The twins are also the patrons of games; offerings of ritual toys are placed at the altar as gifts. When the Ahayu:da are prepared to be moved, the Galaxy Fraternity purifies them. As dawn approaches, Bow Priests carry them to their shrine homes in the mountains — one in the east and one in the west. There the twins reside to protect the Zuni people. The next year, the process is repeated. The new ones replace the old, which are ritually "retired," reverently laid adjacent to the shrine. This process of creation shows how the Ahayu:da are intrinsically sacred. From the Zuni viewpoint, they are unlike "sacred" artifacts most Americans might be familiar with (the Liberty Bell, for example) because they are not historical things whose meanings can evolve over time, but living beings who have one enduring, spiritually sanctioned function.


Excerpted from Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits by Chip Colwell. Copyright © 2017 Chip Colwell. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


I. Resistance: War Gods

1. Only After Night Fall
2. Keepers of the Sky
3. Magic Relief
4. Tribal Resolution
5. All Things Will Eat Themselves Up
6. This Far Away

II. Regret: A Scalp from Sand Creek

7. I Have Come to Kill Indians
8. The Bones Bill
9. We Are Going Back Home
10. Indian Trophies
11. AC.35B
12. A Wound of the Soul

III. Reluctance: Killer Whale
Flotilla Robe

13. Masterless Things
14. Chief Shakes
15. Johnson v. Chilkat Indian Village
16. Last Stand
17. The Weight Was Heavy
18. Our Culture Is Not Dying

IV. Respect: Calusa Skulls

19. The Hardest Cases
20. Long Since Completely Disappeared
21. Unidentifiable
22. Their Place of Understanding
23. Timeless Limbo
24. Before We Just Gave Up


A Note on the Terms American Indian, Native American, Etc.

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