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Repatriating Native Remains


In 1862, President Lincoln ordered the largest mass execution in American history, ending the Dakota War. This grotesque event gets even worse. At the end of the executions, the bodies were taken for burial. In Rochester, Minnesota, a doctor wanted a body for his sons, who he hoped would be doctors, to experiment upon. So he went and dug up one of the bodies of the executed Dakota and gave it to his sons. These sons founded the Mayo Clinic and genocide is the foundational story for perhaps the most important hospital in the United States.

Well, the disrespect for Native remains was at the heart of the genocidal project. They were toys and they were collector’s items and they were scientific artifacts. Institutions around the United States still hold these remains today. There is no possibly defensible reason for this.

In 1990, the nation passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. NAGPRA was supposed to see to it that institutions returned those remains. Over three decades later, that hasn’t happened.

The always valuable ProPublica is making the failure of institutions to return the remains one of its main lines of inquiry in 2023 and here’s a bit from the opening article about it.

Some of the nation’s most prestigious museums continue to hold vast collections of remains and funerary objects that could be returned under NAGPRA.

Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, University of California, Berkeley and the Field Museum in Chicago each hold the remains of more than 1,000 Native Americans. Their earliest collections date back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, when their curators sought to amass encyclopedic collections of human remains.

Many anthropologists from that time justified large-scale collecting as a way to preserve evidence of what they wrongly believed was an extinct race of “Moundbuilders” — one that predated and was unrelated to Native Americans. Later, after that theory proved to be false, archaeologists still excavated gravesites under a different racist justification: Many scientists who embraced the U.S. eugenics movement used plundered craniums for studies that argued Native Americans were inferior to white people based on their skull sizes.

These colonialist myths were also used to justify the U.S. government’s brutality toward Native Americans and fuel much of the racism that they continue to face today.

“Native Americans have always been the object of study instead of real people,” said Shannon O’Loughlin, chief executive of the Association on American Indian Affairs and a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

As the new field of archaeology gained momentum in the 1870s, the Smithsonian Institution struck a deal with U.S. Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman to pay each of his soldiers up to $500 — or roughly $14,000 in 2022 dollars — for items such as clothing, weapons and everyday tools sent back to Washington.

“We are desirous of procuring large numbers of complete equipments in the way of dress, ornament, weapons of war” and “in fact everything bearing upon the life and character of the Indians,” Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian, wrote to Sherman on May 22, 1873.

The Smithsonian Institution today holds in storage the remains of roughly 10,000 people, more than any other U.S. museum. However, it reports its repatriation progress under a different law, the National Museum of the American Indian Act. And it does not publicly share information about what it has yet to repatriate with the same detail that NAGPRA requires of institutions it covers. Instead, the Smithsonian shares its inventory lists with tribes, two spokespeople told ProPublica.

Frederic Ward Putnam, who was appointed curator of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology in 1875, commissioned and funded excavations that would become some of the earliest collections at Harvard, the American Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum. He also helped establish the anthropology department and museum at UC Berkeley — which holds more human remains taken from Native American gravesites than any other U.S. institution that must comply with NAGPRA.

For the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Putnam commissioned the self-taught archaeologist Warren K. Moorehead to lead excavations in southern Ohio to take human remains and “relics” for display. Much of what Moorehead unearthed from Ohio’s Ross and Warren counties became founding collections of the Field Museum.

A few years after Moorehead’s excavations, the American Museum of Natural History co-sponsored rival expeditions to the Southwest; items were looted from New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon and shipped by train to New York. They remain premiere collections of the institution.

As of last month the Field Museum has returned to tribes legal control of 28% of the remains of 1,830 Native Americans it has reported to the National Park Service, which administers the law and keeps inventory data. It still holds at least 1,300 Native American remains.

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