The Scalp From Sand Creek

June 9, 2017

Even after museums return human remains pillaged from a massacre in 1864, can repatriation heal the wounds of history?

On the morning of 29 November 1864, nearly 700 United States soldiers charged towards a village along a gentle bend at Sand Creek, in Colorado Territory. Settled in peace for the winter, there were dozens of Cheyenne and Arapaho families there. Within hours, the soldiers killed more than 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho – mostly women, children and the elderly.

Over the next day, the soldiers pillaged the dead for trophies – including ears, fingers, genitalia and scalps. These body parts were taken to Denver, where soldiers paraded them in the streets and displayed them in homes. Most of the pilfered human remains were lost to time. A handful would survive as artefacts in museums and private collections.

The Sand Creek Massacre took place more than 150 years ago. Yet, it has not yet ended. This crime of American expansionism has continued to reverberate through the generations. The original war over land and dominance has transformed into a battle over memory and emancipation. The demand for the return of ancestral human remains from museums is perhaps the most visible – and tangible – struggle for Native America’s cultural survival. Repatriation asks us to consider whether we can ever fully come to terms with the past.

In 2008, descendants of the Cheyenne and Arapaho victims gathered at the newly established Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in southeastern Colorado. At a specially designated area not far from Sand Creek, religious leaders buried the remains of six victims – one scalp from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, one scalp from the Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado), a cranial fragment from the University of Nebraska, and three sets of remains from a private collection.

‘A Cheyenne elder told us our nations couldn’t heal and couldn’t regain our strength and we as individuals couldn’t heal,’ Suzan Shown Harjo, a leader of the repatriation movement of Cheyenne and Muskogee descent, once said, ‘until we recovered our dead relatives from these places.’

But did the return of the victims’ remains quiet the phantoms of the past? Can repatriation heal the wounds of history?

‘Repatriation’ is derived from the Latin repatriatum, meaning something that has gone home again. In the past several decades, repatriation has become a global controversy as communities and nations struggle to reclaim their stolen heritage from museums and private collections. In the US, hundreds of Native American tribes have negotiated with some 1,000 museums and agencies over the future of more than 200,000 Native American skeletons, and 1 million grave goods and sacred objects.

As early as 1620, shortly after the Pilgrims landed in New England, they dug into an Indian grave, stealing ‘sundry of the prettiest things’. In the centuries that followed, European immigrants often saw Native American cultural objects as trophies for the taking, little different from land, water, timber or other resources. By 1906 in the US, law allowed archaeologists and curators to assume the role of the stewards of Native American material culture. This work has reaped great benefits for science and the public but involved steep costs – for Native communities.

The pillaging of graves for someone else’s education and entertainment violated Native America’s humanity and dignity. Across the generations, the collection of Native Americans’ sacred objects and human remains by Euro-American institutions fostered a sense of powerlessness, hopelessness and anger among Native Americans. Naturally, this amassing of their material history appeared to Native peoples not as memorialising, but as a continuing form of domination and subjugation.

In 1990, this history was finally confronted when the then president George H W Bush signed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) into law. NAGPRA created a process for museums and federal agencies to return cultural items to lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organisations. So far, NAGPRA has resulted in the return of approximately 14,000 sacred and communally owned objects, 50,000 skeletons, and 1.4 million funerary objects.

Like in post-war Germany, descendants of Native American victims live among descendants of the perpetrators

A central theme of the NAGPRA law, and repatriation, is its healing effects. During the return ceremony of a totem pole in 2001, for example, a Tlingit tribal member explained: ‘These treasures coming back to Alaska are an important way of bringing unification and healing.’ Outside the US, in 2011, the Australian government declared: ‘Repatriation is also a vehicle for healing and justice in Australian society.’ Many feel that, as the museum curator and Tuscarora tribal member Richard Hill once wrote: ‘Repatriation must heal old wounds.’

Postcolonial psychology helps to explain how repatriation can heal. Russell Thornton, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Cherokee, has written about the possibility of ‘traumas of history’ – past events that cause damage to an individual or community that must be resolved for psychological health. Drawing from research on Holocaust survivors, Thornton explains how Native Americans have difficulty mourning mass deaths. Like those who lived in post-war Germany, the descendants of Native American victims continue to live among the descendants of the perpetrators. Thornton argues that without resolution, historical traumas are ‘intergenerationally cumulative, thus compounding the mental health problems of succeeding generations’.

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