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Denver Art Museum Denies Repatriation Requests from Native Alaskan Tribes: Report

The Denver Art Museum (DAM) has denied repatriation requests from two federally-recognized Native Alaskan Tribes despite the submission of three formal claims and numerous delegation visits.

A report in the Denver Post earlier this month detailed the different barriers for Indigenous and Native groups to recover funerary objects and ancestral remains held by museums and prestigious universities in the US, even after the passing of NAGPRA.

“They have control of these objects, and they can make it as easy or difficult as they want”, Denver Post investigative reporter Sam Tachnik told Alaska Public Media on April 22.

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Denver Art Museum Denies Repatriation Requests from Native Alaskan Tribes: Report

In 2017, a dozen tribal members from the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska met with museum officials over a 14-foot-wide wooden house partition of a raven showing how the community how to fish.

The delegation said the 170-year-old painted panels should be returned under a federal law passed in 1990. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known as NAGPRA, established processes and procedures for museums and other institutions to return human remains, funerary objects and other items to “Indian tribes” and “Native Hawaiian organizations”. (New federal regulations were passed earlier this year.)

But after three days of meetings, the tribe representatives left the museum with a feeling that the institution would do everything in its power to avoid returning items.

Harold Jacobs, the Tlingit and Haida’s cultural resource specialist who attended the meetings in Denver in 2017, told the Denver Post that the museum was “probably the worst” institution they had ever dealt with.

DAM’s curator of Native arts, John Lukavic, also attended the meetings in 2017 and disputed that museum officials were “intransigent, condescending and insensitive in consultations”.

Lukavis told the Denver Post that the Tlingit representatives never submitted a formal claim under NAGPRA for the raven screen, and the museum offered to help the tribe with the paperwork required for repatriation requests.

“We’re not in the business of just giving away our collections,” Lukavic said. “Nobody is.”

The report said DAM rejected three claims from the Tlingit tribe for a beaver clan hat, a bear shirt and a tunic on the basis of not having enough information.

Chip Colwell, a former curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, told the Denver Post that DAM had a reputation in the museum community for its lack of progress on NAGPRA.

The author of the book “Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture,” Colwell noted that tribes might not both submitting a formal claim for repatriation if they feel an institution has disregarded initial discussions.

“Museums are in the business of returning things,” Colwell told the Denver Post. “It’s this retentionist mentality that led to the predicament we’re in and to NAGPRA itself.”

The Denver Post also noted DAM’s response to repatriation claims is markedly different from other institutions which have received repatriation requests from Native Alaskan tribes, including the Burke Museum, the Portland Art Museum, the University of Maine’s Hudson Museum, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

DAM did not respond to a press request from ARTnews.

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