The curation of discovery: Part 3

Mark Goodman

This week’s serialized installment of “The curation of discovery” deals with not only the discovery and curation of the Mahaffy Cache, a collection of 86, 13,000-year-old artifacts currently on display at the CU Museum of Natural History, but also the history of Native American people and their importance to filling in the many gaps in our understanding of U.S. history. Go here to read “The curation of discovery” from the beginning.

Cache/Artifact/Element: “The Chief Niwot Forum:” Ernest House, Jr., John and Roger Echohawk

I was fortunate to attend the Chief Niwot Forum which featured a talk by Ernest House, Jr., the executive director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs titled, “Searching for Truth and Reconciliation; The Colorado Example.”

House spoke eloquently of the history of Native Americans in this region, with particular focus on the tribes’ relations with United States government entities. The focus of his talk was primarily to educate people on the complex, ancient and integral role of Native American people who live within the boundaries of what is now called Colorado.

House spent much of his time speaking of his own people, the Ute Mountain Tribe — their history, longevity, culture, their evolution into a wealthy tribal nation and cultural resource for Ancient History. He spoke as an integral bridge between cultures in the position of a government liaison.

He also spoke of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, which was enacted on November 16, 1990 to address the rights of lineal Native American peoples to their cultural items, including human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony. The Act was largely the result of work by Boulder’s Native American Rights Fund (NARF).


House noted that, “Most American people are ignorant about Indian issues.” He started his Power-Point presentation with a list of the 45 Native American tribes that have a demonstrated connection to the present geographical boundaries of the state of Colorado.

I am apparently like most Americans as I too was unaware of the great diversity and number of Native American tribes who have a deep relationship to what is now called Colorado. This history is largely unknown to many people outside of those Native American communities. Because of this ignorance, willful or otherwise, the real history of Colorado, ancient to modern, remains unknown.

This is why House encouraged the audience to build relationships between cultures and communities, to bring people together in a harmonious way through understanding, education, openness and respect, patience and humility, honesty. It’s clear we need to heal our relationship with the ancient history of this place.

He remarked of the Native American people of Boulder Valley, who once in great numbers and diversity, called what is now called the Boulder Valley, home. They may “no longer reside here but have always resided here in their minds and hearts,” he remarked.

House noted that Boulder County’s history includes the 3rd Calvary, which trained north of Valmont Butte east of Boulder. The 3rd Calvary was part of a contingent of U.S. soldiers and civilians who attacked peaceful Arapaho and Cheyenne People camped under the American flag of truce at Sand Creek, Colorado in 1864 — massacring hundreds of children, elders, women and men in unfathomably brutal ways. He spoke of this historical trauma as something that “Colorado needs to heal from too. Sand Creek is still living.”

Healing the historical trauma of the Sand Creek Massacre and other such atrocities, means integrating the full history of this region into our collective consciousness. That is, ancient Native American history did not begin here with the Gold Rush as the curators of the Mahaffy Cache would suggest, but rather at some time before what is called the Mahaffy Cache was interred some 13,000 years ago. The Mahaffy Cache is a collection of 86 stone tools discovered by a landscaper named Romero on the property of a wealthy pharmaceutical company owner in Boulder. It is currently on exhibit at the CU Museum of Natural History.

Clearly the people who buried these Clovis-period tools evolved in a complex way over several millennia leading up to the days of the Gold Rush, and the subsequent genocide committed upon them. All of that history is as critical to understanding what it means to belong to this place as anything that occurred at the hands of European immigrants, to those immigrants themselves, or unfolded as history in Europe. In this way, history becomes itself a living being that changes over time as we come to know it more fully and completely. By acknowledging all of history, we can belong more fully to this place.

It is also the case that our ways of knowing the past have much to learn from Indigenous peoples. Oral literature is an area of scholarship that could, and I believe will, inform this region of our large swath of presently unknown history.

The complexity of House’s message cannot be overstated. It feels as if to move forward — to survive as a culture — we must all heal from the reality of our cultural inheritance. And by doing so, bring fully into our cultural reality and narratives, the ancient history of Native America, and Native Americans respectively. We must not simply interpret history in ways that exclude or segregate the Native American perspectives or Native American ways of understanding reality, history. Instead, we should co-create and join in equitable conversations about the history of this hemisphere, our collective present and the future. We must allow our cultural narratives to evolve.

After the House event, I spoke with John Echohawk, executive director of NARF in Boulder. I let him know I was working on an article about the discovery of the Mahaffy Cache and asked his thoughts on the cache in general and his history with Native American remains, burial goods and artifacts.

John Echohawk
John Echohawk Courtesy of Native American Rights Fund

I told him I was particularly interested in how historical links from those artifacts to present Indigenous peoples aren’t recognized and that I wondered what that implied. How does the interpretation of history impact the present condition and understanding of Indigenous people? I was hoping John would be interested in offering his insight into how we can best interpret discoveries of ancient human inhabitation in the present context of Indigenous life in this region.

“Well,” John said, “Ernest [House, Jr.] talked about the list of the 45 tribes. You can bet that those artifacts 13,000 years ago — that some of those tribes would, through research and connections, be able to piece that together.”

John was asserting that if the 45 tribes mentioned by House were to be consulted regarding the nature and contents of the Mahaffy cache, they could likely determine its meaning — the reality of its history, which is currently a mystery to anthropologists and archaeologists.

“So, in terms of doing that work,” I asked, “Would it be something that would be through oral literature and talking with people who were there?”

“Yes, some of the elders,” John said, “looking at some of the artifacts and matching them up with some of the knowledge they have now, and matching that with what they do and what they know, could piece that together. It’s not my field. I’m a lawyer, but it’s our stuff.”

I was struck by the directness with which his last phrase rang. So clearly to him, the artifacts belonged to Native American people and by including tribes in the interpretation of the discovery, what was unknown to science could be illuminated. He noted that a definitive story about the history of the artifacts in the so-called Mahaffy cache could be told if only tribes were consulted.

Roger Echo-Hawk, an ancient historian and John’s cousin, seems to have been the only Native American consultant to the CU Museum of Natural History’s exhibit featuring the Mahaffy Cache, according to CU Museum Director, Patrick Kociolek. When I finally spoke with Roger, I became convinced that these tribes would certainly be able to offer insight into the Cache and help to create a richer dialogue than was presently on offer.

The strange thing is the way the story is being told. Recently, for instance, while watching the NOVA episode about the Mahaffy cache titled “Making North America: Human,” I noticed there was no continuous link presented between the thirteen-thousand-year-old Mahaffy cache and present day Indigenous people. In the context of this discovery, that continuous link is not made.

In fact, the narrative in the show jumped from conversations with CU archeologist Dr. Douglas Bamforth and biopharmaceutical CEO Patrick Mahaffy — who chose to name the cache after himself because he owned the land where the Cache was discovered — about the presumed thirteen-thousand-year-old cache, to the Gold Rush, leaving out millennia of complex human history. Were those living in this massive historical gap not people who made America human?

Of course they were, and are. In the museum exhibit that features the Cache, a question is posed as to whether those who left the Cache are the ancestors of “Modern-day Native Americans?” The exhibit doesn’t answer the question nor does it attempt to do so.

What John Echohawk is saying is that there are people who can answer that question. And in the context of House’s presentation, this information offers a way to fill in the richness of history in what is called Colorado, thereby necessitating the making of amends with people of Native American ancestry, and co-creating the foundation for an equitable future for us all.

John said, “Thirteen-thousand-years — it’s hard to trace some of that, but it could be done. It could be done and there are probably those linkages that could be put in with all those forty-five tribes. There would be connections. Connections could be made.”

I was struck by his use of the word “connection” — a word so often used by many to describe their experience handling the ancient artifacts. They have told me how they felt “a connection.” But here, John was noting an authentic connection, a living connection to a living meaning, to people still living and vital, richly preserving their ways of being with this region that is now shared by us all.

He also said, “So, it’s the same way with the mention of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriations Act [NAGPRA]. A lot of the time these museums basically dug the stuff up [artifacts and human remains] and stole it. They’d say, ‘We don’t know who this stuff belongs to.’ If our peoples get exposure to the artifacts or remains, we could figure out whose stuff that is — whose ancestors they are — whose burial goods those are. We can figure that out.

“Just like Ernest [House] was talking about that issue in NAGPRA, about having these remains — and, it’s not easily identifiable exactly which tribe they belong to — and so they’re called unaffiliated, unidentified remains. The state people and the museum people can’t do the matching themselves, and the different tribes have different things that seem to match. The point is, if anybody’s going to figure it out, it’s the tribes and not the State and not the Museum people. They put together these Unaffiliated Associations and give those things to the tribes and those tribes spend as long as they need, bringing their Elders in and all their history to figure out what to do with those remains and those burial goods. It’s their process.”

I asked him if he thought the same process was appropriate for something like the Mahaffy Cache.

He answered that it was. “Yes, basically, the same kind of process. They’re our artifacts.”

That brought me to my next point. What specifically would a process look like in terms of naming the Cache, and ascribing it to a particular lineage of people who are still here and who didn’t just vanish into thin air.

“It would be something like that NAGPRA process I just mentioned,” said John. “It’s really catching on nationwide because of issues all over the place.”

For me, it seems like it has to do with reclamation — with the workings of human life on this continent. It seems to do with the people who are here, in terms of European-based cultures that say Indigenous people are here, are present. People like Ava Hamilton are very much here — are very present — not just part of history. There is the creation of an emptiness in the linkage by not pursuing that continuity between present-day Indigenous people and the most ancient of Indigenous people on this continent as John is saying.

It makes me wonder, how important is that linkage to all people who are here? It seems that it almost establishes a kind of right — a really immense right — to belong to the place. It also seems to me that that threatens a lot of people.

John agrees, “Yeah, getting the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act through Congress was a huge fight. It was our case and that came after twenty years of litigation where all these remains were popping up and all these tribes and relatives came and said, ‘You know these are our people and we want them back,’ basically, and, ‘We own these. The burial protection laws protect everybody but us and that’s wrong.’

“We litigated many cases and we started winning and forcing museums to give remains and burial goods back. Finally, it got to be such a big issue that people said, ‘Time out, we’ve got to do something here: a National law.’ So, we wrote this National law and passed it and some of the folks in the museum community weren’t very happy. But, the main thing was; we are still here. Many of these folks thought, ‘They’re all gone. There’s nobody to claim these things.’ No, we’re still here. These are our ancestors. These are our artifacts. These belong to us and not you. We’re still here and we claimed them. We turned everything upside down,” he concluded.

I asked him if he thought there is a deeper ideological insecurity, in this context, especially in academia.

“Yeah,” he said, “It’s kind of like they thought they knew more about us than we knew about ourselves. No. No. You don’t. You don’t. And they were ‘the experts,’ and, No, you’re not. We’re the experts and we’ve got all this history that goes way back.”

I told him about the conversation I’d had earlier with his cousin Roger Echo-Hawk and how I’d been reading Roger’s work about integrating oral traditions into the archaeological record. It seemed to me that Roger’s work was very much in line with what John was saying about NAGPRA — how these sort of associations can be set up to get at what these things essentially are through oral literature — through the people who are still here.

Meeting John Echohawk, lawyer, leader and champion of Native American rights, was nothing short of illuminating relative to the lessons of the Mahaffy Cache.


Cache/Artifact/Element: Roger Echo-Hawk and Douglas Bamforth

I arrive at a coffeehouse in downtown Longmont on a cold winter night to meet with ancient historian Roger Echo-Hawk and Douglas Bamforth, the CU archaeologist who was also the principal investigator of the Mahaffy Cache. We ordered drinks and sat down.

“I’ve been trying to get as much information as I can about the time period when these tools were buried,” I began. “I’m still learning much.”

“Me too,” Roger Echo-Hawk replied.

Roger Echo-Hawk is a historian who uses oral histories to fill in missing information in our more ancient past.
Roger Echo-Hawk is a historian who uses oral histories to fill in missing information in our more ancient past. Linda Echo-Hawk

“We don’t know a lot is part of the problem,” Bamforth added. “We tell a lot of stories about it but we don’t know a lot.”

The notion of stories being told about something like the Mahaffy Cache, supposedly 13,000 years old, gives a sense that any information to do with it is invaluable. A story that offers multitudes of interpretations and expressions is valuable in that very fact to our culture. One might say that a diversity of stories weaves us into the living stories of the land on which we live and into being with the fellows with whom we share this place.

I came to know of Roger Echo-Hawk through Charles Counter of the CU Museum at the media briefing for the opening of the Mahaffy cache exhibit. Counter told me that the Museum planned to have a “Native Voices” panel, which would include Roger Echo-Hawk as his thoughts don’t explicitly exist in the CU Museum’s exhibit on the Cache. I’d read some of Roger’s scholarly work about integrating Ancient Oral Literature and the archaeological record, as well as his thoughts on race. I invited him to share his perspective as his was missing from the story I’d heard, the story being told of the Mahaffy Cache.

As his story unfolded, it struck me as being as innovative, profound and integral as any I’d yet heard, but for different reasons. Roger’s insights are necessary for the wholeness of the story.

“Thanks for looking into my history and thinking about this and inviting me to chat with you,” Roger said. “When Doug got a hold of me and invited me to share my end of it, I was very pleased because not only am I interested, but I also see this as an opportunity to learn some new things myself.”

Roger’s openness and comfort in a realm of unknowing such as deep time was immediately clear. Beginning to contemplate the study of Oral Literature in deep time created in me a feeling of being opened into a space of unknown complexity and expanse.

I asked Roger later about his meeting with Charles Counter and Doug Bamforth about the exhibit and he replied that he’d been invited to meet with them in early August 2014. He said that they were creating a plan for the exhibit and they talked for ninety minutes, or so. He said he outlined his thinking about oral traditions in deep time and about the status of race in the world. Roger “Doesn’t do race,” specifically rejecting the idea of archaeologists classifying ancient Native Americans as biologically racial Indians.

Bamforth and Counter knew about Roger’s research in both areas and wanted to hear his ideas in detail in the context of the Mahaffy Cache and exhibit.

I asked Mr. Counter about the meeting, to which he replied that he and Bamforth met with Roger to discuss Indigenous perspectives as the exhibit was in its planning stages. Counter appreciated the time and thought Mr. Echo-Hawk put into the discussions and “Value his perspectives and knowledge.” Mr. Counter went on to note that they are now in the planning stages for a lecture and panel discussion linked to the exhibit to more completely address the full breadth of issues it raises, including Indigenous history, “Since the exhibit itself is confined to a small venue.”

The focus of the museum exhibit is on “The science” as I would learn from the CU Museum director, Patrick Kociolek. The story that Roger Echo-Hawk tells and the forms he uses are not a part of that exhibit, yet his methods, as I was to discover are scientific in a unique, integral and profound way and offer a whole understanding. In my interpretation of the cache, Roger’s insights on oral literature in deep time and race are interwoven with Doug Bamforth’s scientific findings. The two are compartmentalized in the context of the museum exhibit. Yet, the stories themselves are related. It is the living nature of their relationship that is most prominently absent in the story of the Mahaffy Cache, and in the story that our culture tells itself about who we are.


Click to go to The curation of discovery: Part 4




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