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?
epatriation’ 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…