Lodi News-Sentinel

Some museums still have Native American remains despite law

- Sam Tabachnik DENVER POST

DENVER — The remains of Native American ancestors showed up in boxes on the doorsteps of Colorado museums and at yard sales in Denver neighborho­ods.

They sat for decades in metal sheds in the state’s national parks and in the bowels of prominent universiti­es.

These human remains were excavated — looted — from the earth that protected them for centuries, in some cases so scientists could study their skulls to prove bogus, racist theories about the Indigenous peoples that lived here for millennia before Europeans displaced them from their ancestral homeland.

Thirty-three years ago, the U.S. Congress attempted to right some of the wrongs of the country’s genocide of American Indians by passing a law designed to give back to tribes these remains, these ancestors, who filled galleries at America’s top universiti­es and museums.

But three decades after the passage of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriati­on Act, more than half of those human remains have still not been handed back to tribes and descendant­s. A ProPublica investigat­ion titled “The Repatriati­on Project” published last month found 10 institutio­ns hold about half of the 110,000 Native American remains that have languished in collection­s from Massachuse­tts to California.

Colorado has been viewed as a national leader in complying with NAGPRA, as the 1990 law is known, with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and the University of Colorado’s Museum of Natural History two of the first institutio­ns in the country to repatriate their entire collection­s. Institutio­ns in the state, including federal agencies with offices here, have made available 95.6% of the more than 5,000 Native American remains they had possessed — double the national rate.

But despite those successes, at least 230 Native American ancestors still sit in a handful of Colorado museums and university collection­s, a ProPublica database shows. All are deemed “culturally unidentifi­able” — a designatio­n that experts say has been commonly used to absolve institutio­ns from taking action.

Meanwhile, more than 500 ancestral remains taken from Colorado still sit in collection­s across the country.

“It’s imperative that institutio­ns that have that 0% (returned) ask themselves the critical questions: How do we see these ancestral remains or items in our possession?” said Theresa Pasqual, director of the Acoma Pueblo’s tribal historic preservati­on office in New Mexico. “Do we have an ethical and moral right to continue to hold onto these remains or are we ethically obligated to go beyond just sending out a simple letter… and do our due diligence to track down living descendent communitie­s?”

ProPublica’s project sent shock waves through the museum and university world, prompting an avalanche of renewed attention on the progress of institutio­ns across the country in conforming with the landmark 1990 law.

But for those working for years to comply with the act, it confirmed what they already knew: Some of America’s most prestigiou­s institutio­ns — like Harvard University, the University of California, Berkeley and the Field Museum in Chicago — are woefully behind on the 33-year-old legislatio­n.

“It’s sort of a public secret that there are some institutio­ns that have chosen to return only very small portions of their collection­s,” said Chip Colwell, a former curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

The law stemmed from a 1987 hearing held by the U.S. Select Committee on Indian Affairs. Smithsonia­n Secretary Robert McCormick Adams, in testimony on a bill that would repatriate Indian artifacts, indicated more than 50% of the institutio­n’s 34,000 human remains were North American Indians or Alaska Natives.

“Tribal reaction to Secretary Adams’ testimony was swift,” a 1990 Senate report stated. In the following months, Native American tribes around the country called for the repatriati­on of their ancestors so they could be properly reburied.

The United States has a long, tortured history of desecratin­g Indigenous grave sites, dating back to colonial times. Thomas Jefferson once excavated a burial mound in Virginia without asking permission, doing so “in the name of science.”

American institutio­ns, over the 19th and 20th centuries, accumulate­d hordes of Native American remains. The Smithsonia­n in the 1870s paid U.S. soldiers hefty sums for Indian clothing, weapons and tools to be sent back to Washington, ProPublica reported.

“We had these collection­s from well-known grave robbers that went throughout our country and dug everything up,” said Richard Smith, the historic preservati­on officer for the Pueblo of Laguna tribe in New Mexico.

Federal records maintained by National Park Service, which oversees NAGPRA, show how DU and other Colorado institutio­ns accumulate­d thousands of Native American remains from across the southwest.

DU’s Department of Anthropolo­gy used the remains of 17 individual­s that had been removed from unknown locations as teaching aids in a professor’s “dig lab” in the 1980s, recreating an archaeolog­y site in the Science Hall basement, the school wrote in a 2016 notice.

 ?? REBECCA SLEZAK/DENVER POST ?? Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart stands on land in the Ute Mountain Ute Reservatio­n as clouds hover over the Ute Mountains behind him in Towaoc, Colo., on Oct. 1, 2021.
REBECCA SLEZAK/DENVER POST Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart stands on land in the Ute Mountain Ute Reservatio­n as clouds hover over the Ute Mountains behind him in Towaoc, Colo., on Oct. 1, 2021.

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