Chip Colwell Lectures on Repatriation

Anthropologist Chip Colwell delivered a lecture on Wednesday, Feb. 23 at Colgate University discussing the importance of returning ancestral remains, sacred objects, and all other belongings Native Americans lay claim to. His lecture centered on the fact that collectors and museums have a history of stealing Native American objects and ancestors, and that the trauma that this practice causes persists today. 

Before the lecture began Elizabeth Marlowe, associate professor of Art and Art History and director of the museum studies program, gave a riveting speech about Colwell. 

Noting the impact he has had on scholars, Marlowe stated that Colwell is “helping scholars form new to the realm of public scholarship, find their voice and share their knowledge with wider audiences than we are used to addressing.” 

The day of the lecture, Marlowe explained that he provided a workshop for a small group of faculty members “who are hoping to learn how to develop this skill.” She also reviewed Chip’s accomplishments as a scholar, in which he has written eight books and dozens of published articles. 

Professor Marlowe stated that his novel “Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture,” “is one of the most moving academic books I have ever read.” 

Elaborating on this, she said, “What’s so distinctive about Chip’s work, I think, is that he breaks down the barriers between scholarly and popular writing. He communicates in ways that are deeply personal, and also, deeply imbued with empathy for his subjects. Both of which I think are too rare in academic writing and which I have found really inspiring to read, and learn from, and think about why it is we’re trained not to speak in those registers in our normal scholarly, daily lives.”

Colwell opened the lecture stating, “I would like to begin by recognizing that we are situated on the indigenous homelands of the Onyota’a:ka, the Oneida Indian people, and today I pay my respect to Oneida people, past, present and future, and honor their continuing presence in this homeland area.”

A member of the Oneida Nation and the Community Liaison for the Longyear Museum of Anthropology, Lisa Latocha, introduced herself during the Question and Answer session and underscored the necessity of curators working with Indigenous communities.

“The talk was about Native American repatriation, I work in repatriation and I am Native American and have been fighting for our voice since I started in 2017 … The college sits on Oneida land and it houses thousands of stolen Indigenous ancestral belongings. I believe it is important for the students to know that we are on campus and that we exist, we feel and have emotions. We are not the stereotypes. Everytime there is no Native voice on campus, I make sure I use mine,” she said.

Colwell first discussed the Sand Creek massacre, explaining that Colorado tribes and newly arrived immigrants both asserted ownership over the Sand Creek territory. Nearly 700 U.S. army soldiers stood outside the camps of the Cheyenne and Arapaho people. The regime claimed they were there for peace, however, they opened fire when approaching the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes. 

Colwell went on to explain how after this, the regime took belongings and body parts, many of which made their way into museum collections, where “they sat for decades waiting for their reparation.”

What is reparation? Colwell explained that reparation comes from the Latin, reparāre, meaning: to go back to one’s homeland. It describes the process in which claims are made on ancestral remains and are sent back to where they came from. The distribution of reparations has become a global controversy as different descendant communities and source nations have sought to reclaim their heritage from museums and other collections. 

Listing examples, Colwell explained that the Pantheon marble claimed by Greece is located in London. Egypt also claims cultural items that are housed in Germany, and Peru has belongings from Machu Picchu kept in the Yale Museum. Colwell argued, however, that the scale of items and ancestors that Native Americans have lost over time to museums far exceeds other calls for repatriation.

Colwell demonstrated his strengths as a speaker through his abilities to speak on the Sand Creek massacre, and to then introduce the concept of reparations in the given historical context.

Assistant Professor in Global Contemporary Art Brynn Hatton praised the reach of Colwell’s work, stating, “He’s a very visible academic right now. He’s widely published and has a real presence in the TedEx world. He has written a couple of books that have been very well received and they’re for a wider audience. His scholarly stamp and the way that he comes across –the way that his research presents, is one that seems more interested in listening than in talking, if that makes sense.” 

Professor Hatton spoke further on Colwell’s delivery: “What’s really intriguing to me about not necessarily just the content of the work–which is great on its own–but the way he delivers it, is that he seems to be a scholar that is putting forth more in the way of active listening than speaking. He’s about receptivity more than demonstration, about all of his knowledge.” 

By the end of the lecture, it was clear that his words tremendously impacted the audience, culminating in a widespread recognition that action must be taken to return Native American ancestral belongings.