Without consulting with members of the Hopi Indian tribe, History Colorado may never have known the true purpose of one of its Ancient Puebloan artifacts.
History Colorado has maintained an active program implementing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed by the U.S. Congress in 1990. Public institutions nationwide are required to comply with the law, which includes provisions for documentation of Native American collections, providing information to Native American tribes, and consulting with those tribes on a government-to-government basis. While History Colorado is legally required to comply with NAGPRA and to consult with tribes regarding History Colorado collections, over one hundred consultations with more than fifty tribes have shown that History Colorado also benefits from such consultations by learning valuable information about objects in its care. One illustration of how tribal consultations have enhanced our understanding of objects is an Ancient Puebloan “snow shoe” from the Mesa Verde area.
This object is part of History Colorado’s Mesa Verde collection and was excavated by avocational archaeologist Arthur Wilmarth from one of the cliff dwellings in what is now Mesa Verde National Park. The Colorado State Legislature authorized Wilmarth to develop an exhibit of Mesa Verde objects for the Columbian Exposition at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. After the objects returned to Colorado, Wilmarth donated his collection to the state historical society. To this day, History Colorado’s collection from Mesa Verde remains one of the largest collections in the world from this unique archaeological region.
As part of our legal obligations under NAGPRA, History Colorado has consulted with Native American tribes potentially descended from Ancient Puebloan peoples of the Southwest. During consultations, delegates typically are shown objects of possible interest to them. In 1995, when reviewing a “snow shoe” from the Mesa Verde collection, delegates of the Hopi tribe were quick to point out that the object was not a snow shoe but was instead a carrier used to transport trapped eagles for ceremonial purposes. One of the delegates had even used a similar carrier during his youth in the 1930s. This insight changed not only our understanding of the object’s function, but it also demonstrated the continuity of cultures over hundreds of years in the American southwest.
Through the years, History Colorado has fostered a collegial partnership with Native American tribes as it fulfills its ongoing requirement to comply with NAGPRA. This important human rights legislation continues to influence how History Colorado and museums nationwide care for, interpret, and identify Native American collections. It also provides an environment in which Native American tribes may take an active role in that process.
By Bridget Ambler
Photo: O.1079.1, 10032844
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Stephen H. Hart Library and Research Center
History Colorado Center
Denver, CO 80203