Thursday, March 16, 2017

Chip Colwell's "Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits"

Chip Colwell is senior curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America's Culture, and reported the following:
This is how the massacre began. Nearly 700 soldiers of the U.S. Army charged towards the sleeping village like a stampeding herd of buffalo. Tendrils of thick clouds heaved from the mouths of men and horses like dragons in the arctic air. Possessed by a wild fury, the soldiers’ hearts beat faster when they saw on the horizon the scores of tipis huddled at a gentle bend along Sand Creek.

On the bitter cold morning of November 29, 1864, the U.S. Army attacked a peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho settlement at the eastern edge of Colorado, slaughtering upwards of 200 people, mostly women, children, and the elderly. After the killing ended, the soldiers plundered the dead—taking body parts as trophies, including fingers, genitalia, and scalps. When the Army returned to Denver they were greeted as heroes. During a parade that snaked through downtown Denver, the scalps were raised to cheers. At a Christmas performance in Denver’s theater, 100 scalps were strung across the stage. The audiences, it was reported, “applauded rapturously.”

Page 99 of Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits ends this horrifying story. The story is an extreme but not entirely unrepresentative example of how over the last several centuries Native American human remains were transformed from parts of human beings into morbid curios and then historical commodities.

At the core of the repatriation wars is the unevenness of how human remains have been treated based on their ethnicity. Before museums stopped actively collecting Native American skeletons, more than 200,000 Indian remains were in U.S. museums. In contrast, only a small percentage of skeletal remains in museums were Anglos. The return of ancestral remains is thus an enormous burden on Native peoples—a burden they neither asked for or wanted. In this way, a concluding remark on page 99 goes to the heart of the book:
And unlike the settlers who mostly could bury their dead, for the Cheyenne and Arapaho, their past could not so easily be put behind them. For Colorado’s Natives, this history would not end in 1864 or even 1890 at the close of the Indian Wars, because for generations the remains of the victims—their forebears—continued to circulate around Denver and beyond.
One of the scalps from the Sand Creek Massacre ended up at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where I work as a curator. It took 18 years of bureaucratic wrangling to get just this one scalp returned and respectfully buried by the trickling waters of Sand Creek. The ethical drive of the book is this long struggle for justice, reconciliation, and respect—how to make human remains that have been turned into soulless artifacts human once again. The Sand Creek scalp is but one story in the book, but one that does begin to reveal the whole.
Visit Chip Colwell's website.

--Marshal Zeringue