Alaskan Tribes Are Waiting for the Denver Art Museum to Return Their Heritage

It’s been more than three decades since the federal government implemented the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), but the Denver Art Museum (DAM) has yet to repatriate cultural objects to the Tlingít and Haida Tribes in Alaska despite requests for their return, the Denver Post reports.

With a sprawling Indigenous Arts of North America collection consisting of more than 18,000 objects from over 250 Indigenous nations, the Colorado institution was one of the first art museums in the United States that began collecting Native American art as early as 1925.

While the museum claims to abide by NAGPRA and states on its website that it is committed to listening and centering Indigenous communities by “providing meaningful access to our resources including collections, programs, tools, and spaces,” members of the Tlingít and Haida Tribes told the Denver Post that they’re still trying to recover their cultural property and accused DAM officials of being “intransigent, condescending and insensitive” in tribal consultations. Hyperallergic has reached out to DAM and the Tlingít and Haida Tribes for comment.

“Their attitude was: ‘These are ours. They’re here and they’re going to stay here,’” Simeon Johnson of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Sitka and Alaska told the Colorado newspaper, reflecting on a 2017 meeting with museum officials over the return of a red cedar house partition. In response, museum representatives claim that the tribes never submitted a formal claim to the partition, as required by NAGPRA.

Since the implementation of NAGPRA, the tribes have reportedly submitted three formal repatriation claims and taken on various delegation visits, all to no avail.

“We’re not in the business of just giving away our collections,” DAM’s Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Native Arts John Lukavic told the Denver Post.

DAM’s collection of Native American artifacts includes an extensive Northwest Coast collection featuring wood, stone, and bone works from the Tlingít, Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw, and Nuxalk tribal nations and other Indigenous communities, according to the museum’s website. Objects include carved poles, a dugout canoe, ceremonial items like masks, blankets, and weavings, as well as “highly decorated utilitarian objects such as bentwood storage boxes.”

In 2003, the institution made available for return the remains of one Native American individual taken from an unidentified location near Prescott, Arizona, as well as seven associated funerary objects consisting of a medicine cord, a wooden figurine, two decorated skin caps, and three Gaan masks that were purchased from 1936 to 1947.

Earlier this year, the museum announced updates on its compliance with the new NAGPRA guidelines, which went into effect on January 12, stating that members of its staff participated in a training conference and webinar on the legislative revisions and new regulations. The museum also said that it removed a case of Mississippian/Caddoan ceramics from display to be in compliance with the new NAGPRA guidelines, following the footsteps of other museums such as Chicago’s Field Museum and the American Museum of Natural History.

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