“Colorado College does have some skeletons in its closets,” begins former Colorado College Professor of History, Anne Hyde, in her 2005 article published in the Southwest Studies newsletter la Tertulia. “And like many other institutions in the United States, some of its skeletons were the remains of Native American people.” 

We don’t picture the dead very often. If we do, they may be buried underneath feet of dark, heavy soil. The bodies decay. Bones stay. Skeletons should never end up in closets—but they do. They’re in closets, cupboards, corners, boxes, attics, and basements. People around the world have been digging up bones, putting them on display, using them as teaching material, conducting research on them and letting them grow dusty in dark places for a long time. 

Morally, it may never have been okay to dig up the dead, but it’s only right to return them. In 1990, the U.S. federal government passed a law called NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) that mandated institutions to identify cultural items, such as human remains or funerary objects, notify the tribes that they belonged to, and repatriate them if possible. Colorado College complied with NAGPRA with the human remains they knew they possessed, but a lack of documentation left a lot of things hidden.

In 2002, a local resident of Colorado Springs called up Loretta Martinez, the legal counsel of Colorado College at the time, and claimed that the College possessed the remains of Native Americans. Following the phone call, Colorado College began an investigation to see if what she claimed was true. They ended up finding 39 individuals—implying that, at the least, we had the bones, skulls, or full skeletons of 39 people. So if Colorado College did—and may still have— human remains, where did they come from? What closets were they in?

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CC opened its doors on May 8, 1874, two years before the state of Colorado was founded. Although it was modeled after the private, liberal arts schools of the East Coast, CC was decidedly distinct. It was at the heart of the American frontier: trains rumbled by, miners flocked to find gold, and settlements expanded into the wide, mountainous region to the West. Like other higher-education institutions, the school began collecting certain specimens, artworks and artifacts from donors to display in exhibits on campus as early as 1881. At the time, only one building existed—Cutler Hall. Today, Cutlerhouses the Office of Admission, but then, lit by kerosene lamps and heated by potbelly stoves, Cutler Hall functioned as a classroom, office, chemistry lab and even a metallurgical department. It was far too small to accommodate a real museum, so in 1904, the grand, red sandstone building of Palmer Hall was built. To make room for the college’s growing collections, the third floor of Palmer Hall was formally designated as the Colorado College Museum. 

The Museum accumulated objects rapidly. White cabinets full of glass cases lined the room, overflowing with fossils, sea-sponges, swords, rocks, teeth, a stuffed ostrich, eggs and insects. The large, lattice windows cast light onto the curved rib bones and tale of a colossal finback whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling. In 1905, the Museum obtained, by donation, one of its most famous collections: over 500 specimens from the Lang-Bixby Expedition. Special Collections at Tutt Library holds the original typewritten catalogue from the expedition, which was conducted in 1898 in Southeastern Utah and Northern Arizona by a team unassociated with Colorado College. In the document, underneath “Catalogue of Specimens From Chinlee Canon,” the first item is listed, “No. 1. Mummy of Cliff-Dweller’s child found in cliff ruin.” The catalogue contains several other references to skulls and mummies. The Deane Collection, received in the same year, included “over 800 specimens of pottery, implements, skulls, and idols” as Cathy Wright and Jim Diers noted in a la Tertulia article about the Museum. In a “Guide to the CC Museum,” from 1906, another reference to human remains appears in its list of exhibits: “49. Skulls—Prehistoric, Egyptian and Cliff-Dwellers…60. Fossil Human Skeleton—West Indies.” 

From the documentation we still have, it’s clear that CC owned many human remains from at least as far back as the early 1900s. At the time, this was completely legal. While the Lang-Bixby and Deane collections may have been significant contributors, it’s unclear which (if any) bones originated elsewhere. Anne Hyde said, “Many [skeletons] were brought to the College in the late 19th and early-20th centuries as part of archaeological research by faculty, and others were donated by alums, local citizens, or other colleges and museums.” The Colorado College Museum housed most, if not all, of these human remains, but few records state their origins. 

On May 9, 1922, CC students, faculty and staff woke up to taxedermied lions, camels and rhinos on the quad. Students rode them, petted them, and took pictures by their side. A group of students had raided the Museum and placed the animals all around campus as a prank. Despite the iconic photos and legendary story, the prank reflected poorly on the Museum and its maintenance,  most likely spurring its demise. William Postlethwaite, the former school treasurer, did attempt to revitalize the collection when he became the curator in 1940. He had a particular interest in the history of the Southwest and worked on several archaeological expeditions while at CC. Some of his findings, including “ancient pottery, implements and skulls” of the Pueblo Cliff Dwelling cultures, appeared in the Museum’s exhibits. But after Postlethwaite left, the Museum continued to waste away. It officially closed in the 1960s. A Catalyst article from October 22, 1976 paints a bleak picture of what remained: “A look in Palmer 218 reveals stuffed birds leaning sadly against dusty shelves. Several deer heads lie scattered among boxes of books and stacks of chairs, and an empty six-pack of Pepsi rests on display between the cast of a giant snail and the skeleton of a giant ground sloth.” 

This is where the story of CC’s bones gets blurry. The end of the Colorado College Museum marked an important, albeit messy, transition. Professor Dorothy Mierow made a “hasty inventory of the Native American collection” (according to Wright and Dier) in the ‘60s, and Marianne Stoller published a “Final Report on Colorado College Museum Inventory” on June 22, 1977. Despite this, accounts are hazy. Some items, like the taxidermied animals, were tossed into dumpsters. Other items were distributed to several museums around Colorado. The Taylor Museum, a former subset of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, signed a permanent-loan agreement for much of the Southwest material, including the Lang-Bixby and Deane collections. But, Stoller writes, “No complete record is available of what was taken by the Taylor in 1965 and what was left in Palmer Museum.” Several museum pieces also went to departments on campus. Most notably, “the human osteological material [i.e. bones] was moved in 1965 to the Physical Anthropology Laboratory in Palmer Hall where it has been kept ever since.” Stoller goes on:  “Used constantly in teaching, it is a much appreciated instructional resource by the Anthropology Department. It should be added, however, that no catalog of it exists either, but this will be remedied during the coming year by the Department of Anthropology.” 

If such a catalogue exists, it’s not easy to locate. From the reports we have, it seems that the Anthropology department acquired the majority of human remains owned by CC from 1874 to the 1960s. The Taylor Museum most likely received only artifacts like pots, fabrics and funerary objects from burials. If human remains ever did slip past the cracks of documentation—if there’s any possibility CC still has unidentified skeletons—this is when it might have happened. 

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CC Anthropology students shook a framed screen and a cloud of red dust filled the air, coating their sweaty skin and nostrils. They waited while it settled, then looked down expectantly. Small clumps of mud, shards of rock and pieces of yellow-green grass sat on the gridded metal panel. Nothing else. No manos, mutates, hammerstones, cores or wasteflakes. No scraping tools, bifacially flaked blades, projectile points, awls or teschoas. No potshards, shells or bones. They sighed. Their feet ached from surveying the arid plain all morning, and their stomachs growled. Finally, someone shouted from behind a bush—time to wrap up. 

They wiped off their dirt-covered hands on their Patagonia shorts and pulled themselves from the two-foot deep square ditch they had dug. They stretched, groaned and rejoined the rest of the group. Together, they all sat on wood logs, ate venison for dinner, drank some beer and told stories around a warm fire. Soon, the stars sprinkled across the sky like salt and the tired students finally crawled inside their tents, slept deeply and then woke up the next morning to get back to work. 

These are the Watombies. At least, that’s what Toby Sachsenmaier ‘80 calls the adventurous, fun-loving, dedicated CC student-archaeologists in his article written on October 7, 1979 in The Catalyst. His description evokes a mix of wild-west pioneers battling their way through dangerous land and college students dancing, drinking and digging with as much swagger as possible for un-showered 20-year-olds who sift through dirt all day long. Professor Mike Nowak (known by both colleagues and students as “Ekim”) began teaching the class, titled Anthropology 220, in 1970 with the advent of the Block Plan. Most of the work was done on Carrizo Ranches in Baca County, Colorado. The class introduced students to archaeological field work, allowing them to get their hands dirty and learn outside the classroom—not all too different from the much-loved and sought-after field trips CC students take today. The students surveyed the land, drew maps and excavated sites. They examined tipi rings, house structures and petroglyphs. It was exhausting work. A lot of the time, they never found anything. But when they did, they celebrated and noted the location and details of the artifacts they found. Eventually, they brought back certain objects for closer examination in laboratories at school. Their work culminated each year in a publication titled Archaeological Investigations, which is now catalogued in Special Collections at Tutt Library. 

 “Baca County, Colorado, is known to CC students, if at all, as the place where all those Anthropology majors go to dig up old Indians every fall,” wrote Kate Fuller in another Catalyst article about the Anthropology 220 class, this one published on October 22, 1982. Despite her insensitive, cavalier tone, Fuller’s comment raises the question: was it true? 

Miles and Bessie Mizer owned Carrizo Ranches. They welcomed the precocious and raucous CC students ever year, baking them pies, offering up their large freezer to hold the class food supply, sharing stories and leading them to new sites. Wayne Sheldon was their ranch foreman, so he spent a lot of time with the class every year. In the fall of 1979, Sheldon stumbled across a bunched-up skeleton inside a rock shelter on the east side of Whitby canyon in Baca County. Buried with the skeleton were fresh water mollusk, stone flakes, yellow-iron oxide and fragments of hooves most likely from a bison. CC student Ellen Vestergaard conducted an analysis of the skeleton and identified it as a North American Indian male between the ages of 25 and 35. Her findings were published in Archaeological Investigations in June of 1980. At the bottom of her report, she wrote, “The following human bones were received by the college and are available for study:” It ends with that colon. No further information about the skeleton’s whereabouts exist in the document. 

In 1973, six years prior to Sheldon’s donation of the skeleton, CC conducted an archaeological excavation (led byNowak) in Cimarron County, Oklahoma. In the Archaeological Investigations published that year, under Materials Recovered, it lists at the bottom: “Skeletal Remains: Remains of one human male dated at 560 A.D. were found. Skeletal material included the nearly complete skull (mandible missing), the right and left humeri, right and left femus [sic], right tibia, both clavicles and right patella.” These two records seem to imply that CC did, in fact, excavate, research and acquire human remains in the years following the demise of the College Museum, but neither document explains what happened to them after. 

As it turns out, a recent email correspondence with professor Mike Nowak confirmed that the bones acquired by Anthropology 220 were returned to the rancher’s whose land they were found on. There’s a small chance something slipped the college’s notice, but these skeletons are most likely not still in our closets.

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In any academic field—Anthropology, Biology, Sociology or even English—there comes a point when questions of morality, and even legality, arise. Are we—and others outside of this former society—allowed to unbury, touch, examine, research and own the items of someone from the past?

The debate over bones has been waging for a while. Human remains, some say, are valuable to the scientific community: they tell us what diseases people had, where people fled from, what people ate, how people died, if they had children, what labor they did—the list goes on. But these bones were once real people: they loved, lived, ate and worked as part of another culture in another time. Anne Hyde articulated it well when she said, “We are talking about people’s friends, relatives, and children; people who were buried according to their own customs with the expectation that their bodies and the funerary objects that accompanied them would remain untouched.” A National Geographic article titled, “When Is It Okay to Dig Up the Dead?” quoted Rae Gould of the Nipmuc Nation in Massachusetts. She said, “Just the idea that Native American ancestors are put in a category of being less than human, of being archaeological specimens, is beyond disrespectful.” Whether it was a museum, university or individual involved, there may have never been an intention for wrongdoing or disrespect. But it happened. Bones were dug up and taken. And these actions sit upon layers and layers of historical marginalization, oppression and exploitation of the indigenous communities of the United States. This is why the institutions that unearthed these bones are obligated to return them.

The process of repatriation is incredibly difficult. It requires endless paperwork, communication and precision. Bones can’t be haphazardly returned; they need to go back to their correct tribe. Michael Howell, the Registrar and Collections Manager at the Fine Arts Center, as well as CC intern Abby Stein, were given the responsibility of repatriating items held by the FAC, as well as some from CC. They dedicated their time and effort to adhere to NAGPRA. “It was the right thing to do,” Howell said. It became a very personal project for him, as some of his work required handling human remains and the items associated with them. Howell is still working on repatriations to this day—it’s an ongoing process. 

There have been Native American remains located more recently than 2002 at CC, but their location and history are ambiguous. Confidentiality agreements still prohibit any investigation or discussion of the more recent findings. What’s certain is that some remains and bits of clothing—some pieces of life—will never be returned to where they came from. Pieces have fallen through the cracks. In other words, we may still have skeletons in our closets. 

It may not have been the students, the faculty or the staff of today who did any grave digging. But the moment we decided to be part of this institution, we inherited its history. The story of bones at CC, at least the one written here, is incomplete. There is more research to be done; there are more people to talk to, and there is more to understand. If we unbury anything, it should be the truth. 


Part of the Obvious issue