Over the past few years, our nation has attempted a better reckoning with some of the social issues that still lead to inequality and harm to some segments of our society. There is no disputing the power that masses of people across the country asserted following the death of George Floyd. The growing understanding of why transgender teens must be allowed their space and right to become adults proves how a determined push can make positive changes.
While we can point to real progress on some issues, there are other matters that deal with peoples and cultures which remain nearly stalled. In 1990–over thirty years ago(!)–the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, became law. Its intent was to ensure the return of tribal objects by institutions receiving federal money.
The law is rather straightforward. It requires facilities that have such artifacts to submit inventories to federally recognized tribes in the United States. Human remains, along with funerary and sacred objects that can be linked to a specific tribe must be repatriated upon request.
It was reported in the news that some 870,000 Native tribe artifacts that should be returned to tribes under that federal law are still in the possession of colleges, museums, and other institutions across our country. It must be noted, that also includes nearly 110,000 human remains. The National Park Service maintains the data on these artifacts, with the entire list here.
The Wisconsin UW system has a number of bones and funerary objects that must be repatriated to the proper tribes.
We often hear about the desire to heal the pain in our nation, atone for the past actions of other generations, and find ways of uniting and moving forward. How then, in this era of computers and technology, are there still tens of thousands of ancestors not repatriated with their tribes?
Why this matters so very much is that we are not talking about extinct people, as many of these artifacts are still very much integral components of living cultures. Additionally, the placement of ancestral bones and other sacred objects in cold and sterile museums runs counter to Native beliefs.
For me, this story has some meaning beyond the headlines. I am most proud of being the first cousin, 6 times removed, from Chief John Ross who witnessed the horror of the Trail of Tears first-hand. He was also known as Guwisguwi (a mythological or rare migratory bird), and was Principal Chief of the Cherokee Native American Nation from 1828–1866. My Mom’s side of the family always spoke with pride about their heritage.
Broken treaties litter our national story concerning Native tribes. Thirty years after a federal law was passed about Native bones and, artifacts it is troubling that so much work remains to be done. A better reckoning with the parts of our past regarding Native tribes is much in need.