Denver Art Museum Faces Criticism for Denying Repatriation Requests

The Challenges of Repatriation for Indigenous and Native Groups

Repatriation has been a topic of contention for many Indigenous and Native American groups seeking the return of their ancestral remains and cultural objects held by museums and prestigious universities in the United States. The Denver Art Museum (DAM) has recently come under scrutiny for denying repatriation requests from two federally-recognized Native Alaskan Tribes, despite multiple claims and delegation visits. This article will analyze the key points surrounding this issue and explore potential future trends and recommendations for the industry.

The Barriers to Repatriation

The Denver Post report highlights the challenges faced by Indigenous and Native groups in recovering funerary objects and ancestral remains. One of the main barriers is the control museums and institutions have over these items. Sam Tachnik, an investigative reporter, emphasizes that institutions can make the process of repatriation as easy or difficult as they want. This control gives museums the power to resist returning items, even after the passing of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990.

The Case of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska

One specific case mentioned in the article involves a delegation from the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. They requested the return of a 170-year-old wooden house partition depicting a raven fisherman, which they believed should be covered under NAGPRA. However, after three days of meetings, the tribe representatives left the Denver Art Museum with the impression that the institution would do everything possible to avoid returning the item.

Museum Attitude and Response

Harold Jacobs, the cultural resource specialist for the Tlingit and Haida tribes, described the Denver Art Museum as “probably the worst” institution they had dealt with in terms of repatriation efforts. On the other hand, DAM’s curator of Native arts, John Lukavic, disagreed with this portrayal, stating that museum officials were not “intransigent, condescending, and insensitive in consultations.” Lukavic argued that formal claims were not submitted for the raven screen and that the museum offered to assist the tribe in the repatriation process.

The Problematic Approach of DAM

The Denver Post report highlights DAM’s reputation within the museum community for its lack of progress on NAGPRA. Chip Colwell, a former curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, suggests that this retentionist mentality among museums contributes to the challenges faced by tribes in the repatriation process. Colwell notes that if tribes feel an institution has disregarded initial discussions, they may be discouraged from submitting formal repatriation claims.

Potential Future Trends and Recommendations

The case of DAM and their response to repatriation claims raises important questions about the future trends in the industry. To address these challenges and improve the repatriation process for Indigenous and Native groups, the following recommendations can be considered:

  1. Increased Awareness and Education: Museums and institutions should prioritize educating their staff and visitors about the importance of repatriation and the cultural significance of these items to Indigenous and Native communities. This can help foster understanding and support for repatriation efforts.
  2. Streamlined Repatriation Procedures: Institutions should establish clear and efficient procedures for repatriation claims, making it easier for tribes to navigate the process. This includes providing resources and assistance to tribes in submitting formal claims.
  3. Collaborative Decision-Making: Museums should actively involve tribes in the consultation and decision-making processes regarding repatriation. This includes considering the perspectives and concerns of tribes during initial discussions to avoid misunderstandings and mistrust.
  4. Proactive Outreach: Institutions should take a proactive approach in reaching out to tribes and opening dialogue about potential repatriation cases. This can help build relationships and establish a foundation of trust between museums and Indigenous and Native groups.


The Denver Art Museum’s response to repatriation requests raises important issues surrounding the challenges faced by Indigenous and Native groups in recovering their ancestral remains and cultural objects. To ensure a more respectful and efficient repatriation process, museums and institutions must take proactive measures to improve education, streamline procedures, and foster collaborative decision-making. Only through these efforts can museums truly honor the rights and cultural heritage of Indigenous and Native communities.


  • Denver Post article: [link]
  • Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA): [link]
  • Colwell, C. (2017). “Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture”.