Newswire: America’s biggest museums fail to return Native American human remains

Workers excavate a mound at the Moundville Archaeological Park in Moundville, Alabama, in 1975. (photo: The University of Alabama Libraries Special Collections)

By: Logan Jaffe, Mary Hudetz, Ash Ngu and Graham Lee Brewer/ProPublica and NBC News

As the United States pushed Native Americans from their lands to make way for westward expansion throughout the 1800s, museums and the federal government encouraged the looting of Indigenous remains, funerary objects and cultural items. Many of the institutions continue to hold these today — and in some cases resist their return despite the 1990 passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
“We never ceded or relinquished our dead. They were stolen,” James Riding In, then an Arizona State University professor who is Pawnee, said of the unreturned remains.
ProPublica this year is investigating the failure of NAGPRA to bring about the expeditious return of human remains by federally funded universities and museums. Our reporting, in partnership with NBC News, has found that a small group of institutions and government bodies has played an outsized role in the law’s failure.
Ten institutions hold about half of the Native American remains that have not been returned to tribes. These include old and prestigious museums with collections taken from ancestral lands not long after the U.S. government forcibly removed Native Americans from them, as well as state-run institutions that amassed their collections from earthen burial mounds that had protected the dead for hundreds of years.
Two are arms of the U.S. government: the Interior Department, which administers the law, and the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s largest federally owned utility.
An Interior Department spokesperson said it complies with its legal obligations and that its bureaus (such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Land Management) are not required to begin the repatriation of “culturally unidentifiable human remains” unless a tribe or Native Hawaiian organization makes a formal request.
Tennessee Valley Authority Archaeologist and Tribal Liaison Marianne Shuler said the agency is committed to “partnering with federally recognized tribes as we work through the NAGPRA process.”
The law required institutions to publicly report their holdings and to consult with federally recognized tribes to determine which tribes human remains and objects should be repatriated to. Institutions were meant to consider cultural connections, including oral traditions as well as geographical, biological and archaeological links.
Yet many institutions have interpreted the definition of “cultural affiliation” so narrowly that they’ve been able to dismiss tribes’ connections to ancestors and keep remains and funerary objects. Throughout the 1990s, institutions including the Ohio History Connection and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville thwarted the repatriation process by categorizing everything in their collections that might be subject to the law as “culturally unidentifiable.”
Ohio History Connection’s director of American Indian relations, Alex Wesaw, who is also a citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, said that the institution’s original designation of so many collections as culturally unidentifiable may have “been used as a means to keep people on shelves for research and for other things that our institution just doesn’t allow anymore.”
In a statement provided to ProPublica, a University of Tennessee, Knoxville spokesperson said that the university is “actively building relationships with and consulting with Tribal communities.”
ProPublica found that the American Museum of Natural History has not returned some human remains taken from the Southwest, arguing that they are too old to determine which tribes — among dozens in the region — would be the correct ones to repatriate to. In the Midwest, the Illinois State Museum for decades refused to establish a cultural affiliation for Native American human remains that predated the arrival of Europeans in the region in 1673, citing no reliable written records during what archaeologists called the “pre-contact” or “prehistoric” period.
As of last month, about 200 institutions — including the University of Kentucky’s William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology and the nonprofit Center for American Archeology in Kampsville, Illinois — had repatriated none of the remains of more than 14,000 Native Americans in their collections. Some institutions with no recorded repatriations possess the remains of a single individual; others have as many as a couple thousand.
When the federal repatriation law passed in 1990, the Congressional Budget Office estimated it would take 10 years to repatriate all covered objects and remains to Native American tribes. Today, many tribal historic preservation officers and NAGPRA professionals characterize that estimate as laughable, given that Congress has never fully funded the federal office tasked with overseeing the law and administering consultation and repatriation grants.
Author Chip Colwell, a former curator at the Denver Museum of Nature … Science, estimates repatriation will take at least another 70 years to complete. But the Interior Department, now led by the first Native American to serve in a cabinet position, is seeking changes to regulations that would push institutions to complete repatriation within three years. Some who work on repatriation for institutions and tribes have raised concerns about the feasibility of this timeline.
Our investigation included an analysis of records from more than 600 institutions; interviews with more than 100 tribal leaders, museum professionals and others; and the review of nearly 30 years of transcripts from the federal committee that hears disputes related to the law.
D. Rae Gould, executive director of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative at Brown University and a member of the Hassanamisco Band of Nipmucs of Massachusetts, said institutions that don’t want to repatriate often claim there’s inadequate evidence to link ancestral human remains to any living people.
Gould said “one of the faults with the law” is that institutions, and not tribes, have the final say on whether their collections are considered culturally related to the tribes seeking repatriation. “Institutions take advantage of it,” she said.