Tribes, Native organizations push back at institutions reluctant to help with repatriation efforts

A man in a rain coat carries a box with several others
Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History director Kirk Johnson, left, participated in the 2017 reburial of remains excavated in 1931. The remains of 24 villagers were removed from the site of the now abandoned village of Kaskanak. Those ancestral remains were returned in 2017. (Avery Lill/KDLG)

In early 2021, the Harvard Peabody Museum in Massachusetts issued a statement apologizing for its reluctance to work with tribes on returning remains and funerary objects, after social unrest in 2020 reignited conversations about returning ancestral remains and sacred objects to their people.

Since contact, Indigenous people and settlers have had contentious relationships, particularly as settlers appropriated items from traditional Native homelands. These items included totem poles, funerary and cultural objects — even remains of Indigenous ancestors.

Examples include the Edward Harriman Expedition removing a Teikweidi memorial pole from Southeast Alaska in 1899. Or when anthropologist Aleš Hrdlička, an early 20th century Czech-born anthropologist known for unorthodox collection methods such as stripping decomposing flesh from bones, discarded the remains of an infant found in a cradleboard to send the object to the American Museum of Natural History.

“They didn’t have any shame, you know, taking even from graves,” said Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage Institute, a private non-profit cultural organization based in Juneau.

Worl earned her master’s and doctorate in anthropology from Harvard University.

“They just came and took things off of graves,” said Worl, who carries the Tlingit names Yeidiklasókw and Kaaháni, and is Tlingit, Ch’áak’ (Eagle) moiety of the Shangukeidí­ (Thunderbird) Clan from the Kawdliyaayi Hít (House Lowered From the Sun) in Klukwan.

“You think about Southeast, it was amazing that we even had anything left.”

Often remains would be removed from tribes without consent or consultation and stored in university or museum collections — even in international institutions.

“I mean, museums themselves are institutions of colonialism,” Worl said. “They came in, they expropriated cultural objects, human remains and more, often without the permission of Native American tribes and others. What they saw as art, we saw as cultural objects.”

People indigenous to North America didn’t have much recourse, until the early 1990s.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, gave tribes a legal avenue to pursue the return of remains and some funerary objects.

It required publicly funded universities and museums to document and report remains and funerary objects within their collections. The summaries are searchable by institution, states where remains are held, and states and regions of their origin.

After a year that included a growing Black Lives Matter movement and the toppling of colonial monuments and statues, the Peabody Museum announced in January it had remains of 15 people of African descent who likely lived before 1865 and may have been enslaved.

According to museum director Jane Pickering, the museum pledged to try to return those remains to the appropriate communities.

“We felt that this was the moment that the university really needed to engage with this issue,” Pickering said. “There are other institutions that have been thinking along these lines as well, but it was time for us to really face up to that history as a university, as an institution.”

In a statement, Pickering said a steering committee would help direct a “multi-year, cross-departmental initiative” to assess its repatriation procedures, disclosing that before NAGPRA, its collection included the remains of 10,000 individuals, as well as Alaska Native cultural objects.

Pickering said the museum is working toward consultations with tribes to return remains and funerary objects in compliance with NAGPRA. And it pledged to develop better policies to address its previous reluctance of turning over some objects.

But tribes and Native organizations like the Association of American Indian Affairs are pushing back, questioning the museum’s process.

Shannon O’Loughlin is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the chief executive and attorney for the association, formed in 1922 to serve Indian Country by protecting sovereignty and preserving culture.

“Harvard tends to cause delay, refuses to make decisions. And often causes extensive burden on tribes by forcing them to produce evidence of cultural affiliation so they have a long history,” she said.

O’Loughlin said she’s concerned Harvard-educated students would go on to other institutions and perpetuate the same harmful repatriation practices and procedures.

“They have developed their inventories out of alignment with what NAGPRA requires,” she said. “They’ve done so by failing to consult with tribes before they completed their inventory process.”

O’Loughlin said Harvard Peabody categorized some remains and items as culturally unidentifiable — which means tribes must provide even more evidence to make a claim.

“That a people can have control and dominion over other peoples to the extent of outlawing their religions and cultures and taking away those things that support that culture’s identity and health … You know, today that institutions still carry on that that racism,” O’Loughlin said. “Much of their collections may be obtained from the theft and violence of other peoples. We wouldn’t allow that (today).”

Phil Deloria, of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, is a history professor at Harvard University, where he teaches subjects like environmental history and the American West. Deloria said a 2010 amendment to NAGPRA was supposed to lay out other pathways to repatriate culturally unaffiliated — or unidentified — remains.

“In that early moment, museums, institutions were required to prepare inventories to consult with tribes on these inventories with the goal of identifying as many kinds of remains and cultural objects that could be culturally affiliated with tribes,” said Deloria, who also currently chairs the Peabody’s NAGPRA faculty committee.

“And there’s a certain kind of set of standards of evidence that suggests and many, many things end up in this kind of bucket of the culturally unidentified,” he said.

The Association of American Indian Affairs sent a letter urging Harvard Peabody to change its practices — and O’Loughlin hopes that tribes have greater opportunity to go through the disposition process.

More than 600 people and organizations signed on in support of the association’s efforts.

Deloria said he recognizes the amount of work a tribe must go through to make a claim, but it’s an important part of the process.

“I have come to the perhaps odd view that the bureaucratic process, the administrative apparatus, the research, the collaborative things, is a really important part of doing a kind of form of justice and honor to the objects and to the human remains,” Deloria said. “It’s also the case that an institution needs to make sure that they are repatriating to the right people.”

Harvard Peabody claims it has repatriated about 30% of its collection. The Association of American Indian Affairs says that number is closer to 15%, and the museum may including remains it is coordinating with other museums in its count.

But for Sealaska Heritage President Rosita Worl, who worked in the Harvard Peabody Museum, the overall impact is clear.

“To see that they had 5,000 human remains after 30 some years, you know, I was horrified when I saw that,” she said.

NAGPRA was intended to give tribes a pathway to return and repatriate cultural objects and remains. But it isn’t without its problems, and tribes still have a lot of work to continue fighting for repatriation.

This is the first of a three-part series. The series in its entirety and an extended audio podcast can be found at

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