As part of its $150 million renovation of the Martin Building, the Denver Art Museum (DAM) held a ceremony in 2019 to install a Haida pole by famed carver Dwight Wallace. To ensure the event honored tribal customs, curators asked Wallace’s descendants to help plan the occasion—but local institutions haven’t always respected Native Americans’ wishes. Here, we highlight key moments in museums’ journeys toward enlightenment.

1925: The DAM begins collecting American Indian art, becoming one of the first U.S. museums to focus on artistry instead of ethnography. But it continues to make gaffes, like showing stolen Zuni carvings known as war gods, or Ahayu:da.

1968: The Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS) accepts 500 boxes of tribal objects, the foundation of its Native American collection, from a private collector. Gordon Yellowman, a Cheyenne chief, says such items were often stolen.

1973: The DMNS establishes the Native American Advisory Council, a first-of-its-kind consortium from Denver’s tribal community that consults on exhibits. Unfortunately, says Chip Colwell, former curator of anthropology at the DMNS, the council’s concerns were typically dismissed.

1980: After a two-year national campaign by the Zuni, public pressure convinces the DAM to return war god figures (it’s the first institution in the world to do so). They’re placed in a secure, roofless sanctuary in New Mexico so they can disintegrate naturally, per Zuni custom.

1990: A new federal law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), enacts a system for tribes to request the return of human remains and certain objects. But curators can ultimately decide to keep items.

A Zuni war god shrine. Photo by John Wesley Powell via Wikimedia Commons

1991: The DMNS is praised for swiftly returning Zuni war gods found in storage. But the same year, a member of the Alaskan Tlingit tribe files a NAGPRA claim for Kéet S’aaxw, a ceremonial hat. The DMNS takes six years to give it back and is accused of stalling.

1994: The DMNS hosts Yankton Sioux activist Maria Pearson for its first NAGPRA consultation, in
which curators display their inventories to tribes. Yellowman, a former NAGPRA official, says such meetings spurred communication by showing both parties cared for the objects.

2012: History Colorado Center opens a Sand Creek Massacre exhibit that draws criticism from the victims’ descendants, who object to its title, Collision, among other details. The museum admits it failed to adequately consult with the tribes and closes the exhibit indefinitely.

Photo by Will Austin/courtesy of History Colorado

2017: Colorado’s Ute tribes are given veto power over every word, photo, and item displayed at History Colorado’s Ute Indian Museum in Grand Junction. The institution uses the same process for 2018’s Written On The Land: Ute Voices, Ute History exhibit in Denver.

This article was originally published in 5280 June 2020.
Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil is a Denver-based journalist and 5280's former digital senior associate editor.