More than 30 years after the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was put into place, the Denver Art Museum (DAM) has still not returned cultural artifacts to the Tlingít and Haida Tribes of Alaska, according to a report from the Denver Post. The museum, housing a significant collection called the Indigenous Arts of North America, contains over 18,000 items from more than 250 Indigenous nations. This collection began in 1925, making DAM one of the earliest American art museums to collect Native American art.

The museum has expressed its commitment to NAGPRA on its website, stating its dedication to engaging with Indigenous communities through access to its collections, programs, and facilities. However, members of the Tlingít and Haida Tribes have voiced their frustrations, labeling museum officials as unyielding and disrespectful during discussions about repatriating tribal artifacts. Despite the tension, museum representatives maintain that formal claims for specific items, like a red cedar house partition discussed in a 2017 meeting, have not been filed by the tribes.

Despite repeated efforts, including three formal repatriation claims and several delegation visits, the tribes have been unsuccessful in reclaiming their heritage pieces. John Lukavic, DAM’s Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Native Arts, emphasized the museum’s stance, saying they are not in the practice of casually relinquishing parts of their collection.

The museum’s collection boasts a vast array of artifacts from the Northwest Coast, including items from the Tlingít, Haida, and other tribal nations, showcasing everything from ceremonial masks to intricately decorated utilitarian objects.

In a move towards compliance with updated NAGPRA guidelines, which took effect this January, DAM has removed certain items from display and participated in training sessions on the new rules. This follows similar actions by other institutions like the Field Museum in Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History.

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