Museums and universities all over the US hold human remains as well as artifacts of Native Americans in their exhibits. Now this is about to change. Reporting from nearly 50 local newsrooms, based on ProPublica’s “Repatriation Project,” has led to a wave of apologies and commitment to returning ancestral remains.
But promises are one thing and fulfilling them is quite another. Until this year, the University of Kentucky’s William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology had never returned any of the more than 4,500 Native American human remains in its collections.
However, in the wake of the ProPublica publication on the “Repatriation Project,” the university told federal officials that 138 ancestral remains in its collection could be repatriated to three Shawnee tribes in Oklahoma and Missouri. The university also announced it will commit nearly $900,000 over the next three years and hire three more staff members to work on repatriations.
“This significant investment in staff and resources is a testament to the university’s steadfast commitment to Native nations and completing the sensitive process of repatriation with transparency, dignity and respect,” Kristi Willet, a university spokesperson, said in an email to ProPublica.
The University of Kentucky is among more than a dozen U.S. schools and museums that have pledged to redouble their efforts to return the human remains and belongings — in some cases numbering in the thousands — that were taken from Native American gravesites. Institutions have also publicly acknowledged the harm inflicted on tribal communities by continuing to keep ancestral remains and cultural items, including after the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act called for them to be returned to tribes.
The wave of responses follows the launch of ProPublica’s series investigating the failures of the federal law.
In the three decades since the law’s passage, museums and universities repatriated fewer than half of the 210,000 human remains they initially reported holding, according to a ProPublica analysis of federal data from December. Ten institutions and federal agencies — including old and prestigious museums, state-funded universities and the U.S. Interior Department — hold about half of those remains, the analysis found.
Nearly 50 local and regional newsrooms have used the data analyzed by ProPublica to report on the progress of repatriation by institutions in their area.
“We want to get this done quickly. We recognize that tribal nations actually feel harm the entire time we’re holding their ancestors,” Catherine Smith, who was recently hired to coordinate University of Florida’s repatriation efforts, told WUFT, a public radio station in Gainesville.
Many institutions have for years told tribes that they will improve their work under NAGPRA and apologized for holding onto remains, said Shannon O’Loughlin, chief executive of the Association on American Indian Affairs, a nonprofit that has long advocated for tribes on repatriation. Meanwhile, museums and universities often continued to interpret the law in ways that allowed for them to resist repatriation and escape scrutiny, she said.
Now, with increased attention from the news media, institutions are facing more pressure to answer for vast collections of Native American remains. The public apologies and commitments to allocate more resources, including hiring staff, mark a shift for many institutions, she said.
“We’ve been told the same stuff, so I’m not sure that we should believe them now,” said O’Loughlin, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. “But, hey, they’re saying it in the public, so we’re gonna hold them to it.”