Over 100k Indigenous remains illegally held in local museums, schools

Decades after a federal law required museums and other federally funded institutions to return the human remains of Native Americans to tribal communities, thousands of bones and other body parts have yet to find their way home.

The remains of over 110,000 Native Americans continue to be held by some of the country’s most prestigious universities, high-profile museums and even the federal government, according to a new series by the investigative news non-profit Pro Publica.

“We never ceded or relinquished our dead. They were stolen,” James Riding In, a former Arizona State University professor who is Pawnee, told Pro Publica.

The University of Berkeley, Harvard, the Illinois State Museum and the Dept. of the Interior are among the more than 600 institutions that have reported holding indigenous remains. They have skirted a 1990 federal law that acknowledged the unfair treatment of indigenous communities and called for the return of remains and other cultural objects.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, established a process to help Indigenous groups reclaim their dead. However, tribes have struggled to repatriate the remains because of a lack of funding and because the law is difficult to enforce, according to Pro Publica’s Repatriation Project.

Since 1990, just under $60,000 in fines have been collected through enforcement action. The National Park Service, responsible for investigating claims of wrongdoing concerning NAGPRA, only recently funded one full-time position to uphold the law.

Many remains were harvested from battlefields and massacre sites during the United States’ westward expansion.

Since 1990, the remains of around 100,000 Native Americans have been returned to tribes, including the Chickasaw Nation, the Hopi Tribe of Arizona and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

Ten institutions hold approximately half of all the remains that have not been made available to tribes, partly because a quirk in the law allows them to keep the remains if they are “culturally unidentifiable.”

That means if the remains can’t be traced to a modern and federally recognized tribe, they are deemed unidentifiable and can be legally kept.

Alongside reporting on the issue, Pro Publica has created a database to search for institutions that hold remains and the tribes affected.

Some institutions have earmarked some remains for repatriation but also held on to thousands more. The University of Berkley, for example, has 2,600 remains that it has agreed to turn over to tribes. It is keeping over 9,000. The University of Alabama has decided to hand over the remains of over 10,000 people.

In a statement to Pro Publica, a University of Alabama Museums spokesperson said, “To honor and preserve historical and cultural heritage, the proper care of artifacts and ancestral remains of Muskogean-speaking peoples has been and will continue to be imperative to UA.” The university declined to comment further “out of respect for the tribes,” but added that “we look forward to continuing our productive work” with them.

The Departments of Agriculture, the Interior and defense have agreed to give up most of their Native American holdings.

Oddly, three sheriff’s departments, each holding the remains of one Native American, have agreed to repatriate the remains.

If you’re aware of Native American remains in your region that are not in the database, you can report them here.

Christopher Harress

Christopher Harress |

Climate change reporter on the east and Gulf coasts.

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