For the last 11 years, Sheila Goff has spent her time combing through History Colorado’s Native American collection. As the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) liaison …
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For the last 11 years, Sheila Goff has spent her time combing through History Colorado’s Native American collection. As the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) liaison for the museum, it was her job to find, and eventually return, human remains and sacred items to their tribes. In addition to her NAGPRA role, Goff was also the curator of archeology and ethnography at History Colorado.
After retiring from the museum in January, Goff reflected on a career on rebuilding relationships with Native American tribes in Colorado.
Often, when museums like History Colorado began collecting artifacts from the tribes, they were taken by force or without permission, Goff said. In 1990, that all changed when NAGPRA was put into place. In addition to returning sacred items, the law established rules on the discovery of Native American funerary items and human remains so the artifacts cannot be taken without permission.
Most of the items that Goff has helped return over the years were taken in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In her 11 years at History Colorado, Goff has returned more than 200 human remains, 300 funerary items and 200 unassociated items related to Native American burials, but not directly buried with someone. The process of returning artifacts to the tribes is known as repatriation.
“Each time we would have a repatriation and be able to return those repatriated items, all those times were very meaningful,” she said. “It’s just very rewarding work to know that I helped facilitate the return of folks’ ancestors.”
Goff has worked with 48 tribes, including the Ute, Cheyenne and Arapaho.
But the process of getting artifacts and remains back to their rightful owners can be lengthy, Goff said. Staffs at museums need to go through a collection and identify if any of the items fall under the NAGPRA law.
Some artifacts, such as human remains, are more obvious. But others may be linked to sacred burial rights without museum staff realizing it. This is where the tribes come in. First, museum staff identify the tribe that the artifact comes from, Goff said. She then invites the tribe to come in and consult with the museum to see if items in the collection are related to any sacred rituals.
“The ability to identify those is done in consultation,” Goff said. “The real experts for those is the tribal representatives.”
After those artifacts have been identified, there’s a pile of paperwork on the federal level, as well as with the museum and tribes. Then the items can go home.
Working at the museum was Goff’s second career. She became interested in archeology and got her second master’s degree in museum and field studies from the University of Colorado in Boulder in 2002. She began working on returning artifacts to Native American tribes while still in school.
In 2007, Goff joined History Colorado. The museum celebrated her career and retirement during the opening party of the Written on the Land exhibit in early January. Her last day at the museum was Jan. 15.
Written on the Land is an exhibit celebrating the three Ute tribes and their roots as some of Colorado’s earliest citizens. It was one of Goff’s final projects. While curating the exhibit, History Colorado worked with 30 representatives from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation.
Ernest House Jr., senior policy director of Keystone Policy Center and former executive director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, was one of the representatives working with the museum. He is grateful for Goff’s part in telling the story of Native American tribes, he said.
“Sheila helped our voices and perspectives get heard. And, in doing so, she has moved us closer to ensuring that Native American History is our shared history,” said House in a release from the museum. “We are eternally grateful for her leadership and for History Colorado’s never-ending collaboration and storytelling with our tribes. There will always be so much more to learn and understand about our traditions and our future.”
Learning about the cultures of the tribes has also influenced her own life.
Goff said she loved learning about how connected tribes are to the land. Family knowledge is also key. Now that she’s retired, Goff hopes to do some investigating into her own family past.
Fostering relationships with Colorado tribes has been important to Goff. Engaging with the Utes has lead to more meaningful collaboration, she said.
“The relationships that were built to do this kind of work,” she said, “spills over in a positive manner.”
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