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The Southern Ute tribe repatriates sacred objects from cultural institutions around the country

The Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum in Ignacio, Colorado is where the tribe's Cultural Education Department and NAGPRA coordinator are based.
Clark Adomaitis
The Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum in Ignacio, Colorado is where the tribe's Cultural Education Department and NAGPRA coordinator are based.

In January, museums around the country removed Native American objects from display after new federal regulations went into effect regarding the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The Act mandates the return of hundreds of thousands of Indigenous artifacts and ancestral remains that are in museums and universities across the United States. Recent updates to the Act mandate that items cannot be on display without permission from the tribes.

Crystal Rizzo is the director of the Cultural Preservation Department of the Southern Ute Tribe. She says they currently have several ongoing NAGPRA cases involving institutions from New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Georgia.

“These items were taken from us. There's been a long, long history, hundreds of years of abuse towards tribal people, to Native people in our communities. So I think this is an important step in reconciling the wrongs that have happened,” said Rizzo.

Rizzo says the Southern Ute Tribe has a NAGPRA coordinator working on these cases. The tribe has been working to repatriate sacred objects that ended up around the country for decades.

Rizzo says that the recent NAGPRA changes underscore that art institutions are abandoning outdated anthropological practices and are getting better at communicating with Native American tribes.

“Socially, we've changed our mentality around looting or picking up items. You wouldn't go and dig up something out of Arlington Cemetery and then put it on display. We heavily believe that those things should be brought back to us. Those are things that were taken from us, and I think it’s part of our tribal sovereignty and keeping our culture together.” said Rizzo.

Rizzo declined to share specifics about which items and from where to protect the sacredness of the objects and the tribe's privacy.

This story is part of Voices From the Edge of the Colorado Plateau, a reporting collaboration between KSUT Public Radio and KSJD Community Radio. It seeks to cover underrepresented communities in the Four Corners. The multi-year project will cover Native, Indigenous, Latino/Latina, and other communities across southwest Colorado.

Explore more Voices From the Edge of the Colorado Plateau stories on the KSUT website.

Clark Adomaitis is a shared radio reporter for KSUT in Ignacio, Colorado, and KSJD in Cortez, Colorado, for the Voices from the Edge of the Colorado Plateau reporting project. He covers stories that focus on underrepresented voices from the Four Corners region, including the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Tribes, the Navajo Nation, Hispanic and LGBTQ+ communities, and more.
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