What are the Mimbres artifacts, and what is their history at the Weisman?

Weisman Art Museum currently houses a large assortment of Mimbres cultural material (ca. 1000-1150), resulting from excavations in southern New Mexico conducted by University of Minnesota faculty and students from 1928 to 1931. More than 2,000 Mimbres objects and more than 150 human burial remains came to the University as a result of those excavations. The objects ranged from stone tools, arrowheads, and points to animal-bone awls, beads, and pendants. In addition, these holdings include more than 1,000 painted bowls, some of which were on view at the Weisman until 2019. These shallow bowls were originally found in or near graves at the Mimbres excavation sites, covering the head of the deceased or stacked up beside the remains; some of the deeper containers were used to hold cremated remains.

These artifacts were largely kept together by the Anthropology Department until 1989, when the ancestors (human remains) were transferred to the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC) under state law. The grave goods, other items, and historical documentation were transferred to the Weisman in 1992, where they remain today. 

Who made the Mimbres pottery and artifacts?

The people who made the Mimbres pottery and artifacts lived in the southwestern corner of what is now known as New Mexico, as well as in adjacent areas of northern Mexico and eastern Arizona, in and around the valleys of the Mimbres River and upper Gila River. We do not know what this group of people called themselves, but because of their location, archaeologists refer to them as the Mimbres people. The people of the Mimbres valley first lived in semi-subterranean pit houses and in later periods lived in large adobe villages. They farmed in the nearby valleys and supplemented their diet with wild game and plants. They are known today for their distinctive painted pottery, most of which has been found in burial sites. Archaeologists have defined their culture as lasting from about 550 CE (Common Era) to 1130 CE. However, people have continued to live in this region up to the present, with cultural changes occurring over time. These changes include colonization and displacement by white settlers, although Mimbres descendants have never conceded their historical connections.   

MIAC determined that the following tribal nations are culturally affiliated with the human remains under its steward included in MIAC’s inventory completed as required by the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act:         

Pueblo of Acoma
Pueblo of Isleta
Pueblo of Laguna
Pueblo of Pojoaque
Pueblo of San Ildefonso
Pueblo of Zia
Zuni Pueblo
Hopi Tribe of Arizona

Margaret C. Nelson and Michelle Hegmon (2001) “Abandonment Is Not as It Seems: An Approach to the Relationship between Site and Regional Abandonment,” American Antiquity, 66:1, 213-235

Jakob W. Sedig (2020) “Environmental Precarity and Religious Transformation during the Mimbres Transitional Phase,” KIVA, 86:1, 24-46, DOI: 10.1080/00231940.2019.1675016

Karen Gust Schollmeyer (2018) “Long-Term Interactions of People and Animals in the Mimbres Region, Southwest New Mexico AD 200–1450,” KIVA, 84:1, 51-84, DOI: 10.1080/00231940.2017.1420613

What is the purpose and aim of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)?

As summarized on the National Park Service website, “Since 1990, Federal law has provided for the repatriation and disposition of certain Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. By enacting NAGPRA, Congress recognized that human remains of any ancestry ‘must at all times be treated with dignity and respect.’ Congress also acknowledged that human remains and other cultural items removed from Federal or tribal lands belong, in the first instance, to lineal descendants, Indian Tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations. With this law, Congress sought to encourage a continuing dialogue between museums and Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations and to promote a greater understanding between the groups while at the same time recognizing the important function museums serve in society by preserving the past. (US Senate Report 101-473).” (Source)

Are there human remains from the Mimbres excavations at the Weisman?

As noted above, in 1989 the University of Minnesota Anthropology department believed that it had transferred all human remains from the UMN Anthropology archaeological digs into the care of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC), which still acts as their steward. The Mimbres ancestors associated with the objects at WAM currently reside at Hamline University’s Osteology Repository under an agreement with MIAC.   

The vast majority of cultural material in the Weisman’s repository does, in fact, consist of Mimbres ceramics, pot shards, tools, and worked animal bones. However, an initial comprehensive inventory of the materials is only now being completed. During this inventory, the University’s research team discovered and identified a small number of human remains. In the summer of 2020, a tooth and bone fragments, as well as two cremation bundles, were found in the museum’s holdings and catalogued by researchers. These previously uncatalogued human remains were promptly turned over to MIAC and taken to Hamline University’s Osteology Repository. This discovery was, of course, particularly disturbing and distressing, and it underscores the importance of completing the full inventory of the Mimbres materials. That work continues and is expected to be completed this calendar year.  A complete inventory is absolutely crucial to ensuring that these human remains and all the affiliated cultural materials are properly identified and cared for with the respect they deserve. 

What’s currently happening with the Mimbres materials at WAM?

WAM registrars, researchers, and University of Minnesota scholars from the Anthropology Department are currently conducting a comprehensive inventory of the objects associated with the 1928-31 Mimbres site excavations in New Mexico, with special attention to researching and documenting the connection between Mimbres human remains and their associated funerary objects, as required by NAGPRA. 

In 1993, the Weisman submitted a summary of these holdings. In 1995, the Weisman made a subsequent filing, but still not a complete inventory of associated funerary objects affiliated with human remains. MIAC has corresponded with WAM, requesting a full inventory, per NAGPRA regulations. WAM is completing that inventory now. We must acknowledge that this delay was a mistake, and the University’s previous failure to provide an inventory and to discuss the holdings has been a source of pain and ongoing trauma for MIAC and the Minnesota tribes they represent, the Native artist community of the Twin Cities, and the descendant tribal nations of the Southwest. The museum is on track to complete that overdue inventory process later this year, and we will try respectfully to repair the relationships between the University and tribal communities. 

What is the repatriation process for Mimbres objects that the University currently holds?

According to NAGPRA, to complete the inventory of the Mimbres holdings, the University and WAM must:

  • Consult with any Indian Tribes and organizations with a possible cultural affiliation to the Mimbres materials,
  • Evaluate the information from consultation along with all other available information, including biological, archaeological, anthropological, geographical, kinship, linguistic, folkloric, oral tradition, historical, or other relevant information or expert opinion, and
  • Determine whether a relationship of shared group identity can be reasonably traced between an earlier identifiable group of people connected to the human remains and any present-day Indian Tribe.

A finding of culture affiliation should be based upon overall evaluation of the totality of the circumstances and evidence pertaining to the connection between the claimant and the human remains and associated funerary objects. NAGPRA regulations require that, once cultural affiliation has been determined, human remains and associated funerary objects must be repatriated to a culturally affiliated tribe that requests them. In recent years, representatives from Native American tribes in the American Southwest have claimed such a connection to the funerary objects held at WAM and Mimbres ancestral remains under MIAC’s stewardship. 

What happens next?

The University’s inventory team will complete its work cataloguing the Mimbres cultural materials held at the Weisman within the next four to six months, unless University closures related to the pandemic delay the inventory timeline, as the closures did last March. The culmination of the NAGPRA inventory process will involve consultations with the Southwestern Native American tribes, which claim cultural affiliation with the Mimbres people.

The University of Minnesota has also convened an advisory committee of University scholars, including a number of Native American scholars. This committee will meet regularly and will consult with related Native nations and other relevant parties to help guide University leaders as they navigate decisions about the culture affiliation as well as the disposition and future care of these materials. 

The advisory committee members are:

Karen Hanson, Executive Vice President and Provost Emerita; Interim Director of Weisman Art Museum—Chair

Brenda Child, Northrop Professor of American Studies

Karen Mary Davalos, Chair and Professor of Chicano & Latino Studies

Christine Taitano DeLisle, Associate Professor of American Indian Studies

Greg Donofrio, Associate Professor & Director of Heritage Conservation and Preservation

Michael Gaudio, Chair and Professor of Art History

Jody Gray, Director of the Office of Diversity & Inclusion, CFANS

Kat Hayes, Associate Professor Anthropology; Director of the Race, Indigeneity, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Initiative

Joan Howland, Roger F. Noreen Professor of Law; Law School Associate Dean for Information and Technology

Jean O’Brien, Distinguished McKnight Professor of History

As noted, the advisory committee has been asked and has already begun to consult widely with a broad range of interested and knowledgeable parties– both organizations and individuals–including the Association on American Indian Affairs, relevant Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, and relevant museums’ directors, curators, and registrars.  The University’s Associate Vice President for Tribal Affairs, Tadd Johnson (Professor of American Indian Studies, UMD), and the Weisman Registrar for Collections, Rosa Corral are also serving as consultants to the advisory committee.

September 2020