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

Chip Colwell. Univ. of Chicago, $30 (336p) ISBN 978-0-226-29899-3
Colwell, senior curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, explores the fraught project of repatriating Native American sacred objects in this moving and thoughtful work. Drawing on his personal experiences navigating the repatriation process, as well as interviews with tribal leaders, Colwell outlines the historical, legal, and political entanglements surrounding the theft and eventual recovery of sacred items once displayed in American museums. Each of the book’s four sections focuses on artifacts belonging to a different Native people, tracing the respective repatriation journeys of Zuni sculptures that are also living gods, body parts from Cheyenne and Arapaho victims of the Sandy Creek massacre, a ceremonial Tlingit robe, and bones of the Calusa, whose extinction remains debated. With each story, Colwell attends to tensions between museum preservationists and living Native communities, emphasizing that repatriation is not an act, but a complex, emotional process. Along the way, he skillfully interweaves discussion of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which paved the way for coordinated Native recovery efforts. Colwell’s book raises provocative questions about who owns the past, and is surely an important work for curators—or anyone—interested in America’s treatment of its cultural legacy. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 01/09/2017
Release date: 03/01/2017
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