|Pottery from Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon’s largest structure, sits behind glass in lab at the American Museum of Natural History. (Photo, American Museum of Natural History Library)|
Western expansion of the U.S. in the 1800s muscled Native Americans off their land. At the same time, “Museums and the federal government encouraged the looting of Indigenous remains, funerary objects and cultural items,” Logan Jaffe, Mary Hudetz and Ash Ngu of ProPublica report with Graham Lee Brewer of NBC. “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. . . A small group of institutions and government bodies has played an outsized role in the law’s failure.”
The reporters write, “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.”
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, told ProPublica, “‘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.” In sum, Native Americans do not get to decide what they want returned.
ProPublica notes, “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. . . . . A University of Kentucky spokesperson told ProPublica the William S. Webb Museum “is committed to repatriating all Native American ancestral remains and funerary belongings, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony to Native nations.”
Some entities due not feel a duty to act. Jason L. King, the executive director of the Center for American Archeology, said that the institution has complied with the law, said: “To date, no tribes have requested repatriation of remains or objects from the CAA.” Others entities are attempting to address their lack of action. In a statement, a [Webb] museum spokesperson said that “we recognize the pain caused by past practices . . . The University of Kentucky recently told ProPublica that it plans to spend more than $800,000 between 2023 and 2025 on repatriation, including the hiring of three more museum staff positions.”