Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America's Culture


Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publish Date
6.1 X 9.1 X 1.1 inches | 1.35 pounds

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About the Author

Chip Colwell is the senior curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. His work has been highlighted in such venues as the New York Times, Denver Post, Huffington Post, and C-SPAN, and his books include Living Histories: Native Americans and Southwestern Archaeology and Inheriting the Past: The Making of Arthur C. Parker and Indigenous Archaeology.


"In this beautifully written meditation on the vexed relationship between museums and Native American communities, Colwell reveals as never before the human dimensions of our recent struggles over repatriation. Important, necessary reading for all those who grapple with the essential question of how best to respect and honor the past."--Karl Jacoby, author of Shadows at Dawn: An Apache Massacre and the Violence of History
"Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits breaks new ground. Colwell's dual roles of museum curator and human rights advocate offers a narrative of personal growth and professional practice that couples a humanist's sensitivities with a historian's insistence on primary documentary sources. The resulting breath of fresh air contributes mightily to still-controversial conversations about American reburial and repatriation. The message sounds loud and clear: Twenty-first century museums can indeed stand tall in addressing their own complex histories. Why do some still feel obliged to cover up past performance, to lock out qualified researchers from their archives and to sugar-coat their past in the hopes that nobody will notice?"
--David H. Thomas, author of Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity
"Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits uses the story of one museum to show how Native American symbols of identity and ceremony and ancestral bones were initially appropriated as objects of cultural patrimony, but recently have become part of a complicated struggle of ownership. As Colwell profoundly shows, the emotional price paid by everyone involved--Native American, archaeologist, and museum curator--is never small."
--Larry J. Zimmerman, author of The Sacred Wisdom of the Native Americans
"Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits is a sobering peek into the controversy that surrounds tribal artifacts and human remains found in museums throughout the United States. His eloquent narration details several unique cases of repatriation. . . . Colwell has a unique perspective. He provides the reader with a firsthand look at the repatriation process, sympathetically including tribal perspectives--something that few museum directors have sought to do when writing on this subject in the past."--Science
"Colwell ably and sensitively tells the often conflict-ridden story of how and why museums in the US relinquished their hold over this material. . . . Colwell finds himself squarely in the middle of each quandary: a practising anthropologist who works alongside Native Americans every day and is sensitive to their cultural dynamics. Colwell's account favours the Native American perspective--a sensible approach for a book aimed at scientifically literate readers who may lean the other way. Readers will come away with a deeper appreciation of Native American cultural imperatives and the complexity of the situation."--New Scientist
"A careful and intelligent chronicle of the battle over Indian artifacts and the study of Indian culture."--Wall Street Journal

"A lightly written, insider's account of the battle over human remains and objects in museums. . . . As this book shows, the fight to reclaim Native America's culture has been waged, in significant parts, by professionals such as Colwell. His is indeed an insider's account--just not from the sidelines. He too has been on the battlefield."

"Colwell, senior curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, explores the fraught project of repatriating Native American sacred objects in this moving and thoughtful work. . . . Colwell's book raises provocative questions about who owns the past, and is surely an important work for curators--or anyone--interested in America's treatment of its cultural legacy."--Publishers Weekly
"This powerful book will be of particular importance to those working in museum and tribal settings, but is highly appropriate for anyone interested in cultural heritage and the legal efforts to manage claims for Native patrimony. Essential."--Choice
"Without ever descending into sensationalistic tones, the author exposes delicate facts about massacres, beliefs, desecrations, and illegal activities, deploying evidence with a measured distance that is difficult to argue against. Native American voices are given plenty of space to support their cases. They emerge as strong and determined and this is what the author wants us to perceive as a way to sensitise the public to the deep ethical implications that these, like many other cases, present us with. . . [Colwell] explicitly make[s] the theme of objects' agency and personhood the core of [his] most poignant arguments about repatriation, ethics, and conservation."--Transmotion