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Universities have held onto sacred Indigenous remains and items for decades — and have been slow to give them back

<i>Courtesy Brett Chapman</i><br/>Chief Standing Bear is pictured in an 1877 photo.
Courtesy Brett Chapman
Chief Standing Bear is pictured in an 1877 photo.

By Neelam Bohra and Radhika Marya, CNN

The Ponca tribe buried Chief Standing Bear more than a century ago in what is now Nebraska.

But Standing Bear’s tomahawk, a symbol of protest against US government policies that didn’t define Native Americans as “people under the law,” has been sitting since 1982 in a glass case 1,500 miles away at a Harvard University museum in suburban Boston.

And it won’t belong to the tribe again until at least September, when officials have agreed to let Ponca leaders visit the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology as a part of the tomahawk’s repatriation.

The tomahawk technically does not fall under items that quality for repatriation under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act — or NAGPRA, a law that outlines legal processes for museums and universities to return ancestral remains and other qualified sacred items to Indigenous tribes.

But Brett Chapman, an Oklahoma attorney and descendant of Standing Bear, initiated the repatriation request, asking the museum to return it because it’s the right thing to do.

“It’s a moral issue. It shouldn’t be their call where we have to wait on them to decide and then praise them for being so benevolent,” Chapman told CNN. “This artifact shouldn’t have ever left the Ponca tribe.”

A federal law to address the issue falls short

Congress passed NAGPRA in 1990 to recognize that remains deserve to be “treated with dignity and respect,” and that objects removed from tribal lands belong to descendants.

But NAGPRA only applies to federally recognized tribes for “cultural items” ranging from the human remains of Indigenous ancestors to funerary objects with specific qualities. It requires tribes to provide evidence of previous ownership, along with other details such as property ownership and tribal history to prove their connections. However, many tribes track their histories orally or run into legal issues declaring land ownership, so they easily fall through cracks in the system.

Universities come into possession of Indigenous sacred items and human remains through both archaeology programs that dig them up and donations from collectors, like in the case of Harvard receiving the tomahawk as part of a bequest to the university.

Ira Matt, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, recently helped facilitate an agreement to get hundreds of cultural items — ranging from saddles to beadwork and moccasins — repatriated from the University of Montana after years of sorting and negotiating outside of NAGPRA guidelines.

Matt said this is a part of a larger movement of Indigenous tribes getting back remains and items across the country as they gain more legal and economic resources. He hopes his agreement can set a precedent for other tribes.

“It was a matter of time,” Matt said. “It just so happens, not everybody wants all these items. It also just happens that the public doesn’t necessarily have an appetite for a bunch of stolen items, corrupted from the people. And it just so happens, tribes are becoming prepared to take these things back, to fight for it legally. That foundation has given them the avenue.”

How universities are trying to improve repatriation efforts

Over the past few years, more university policies have centered on tribes recognized by NAGPRA, but they still have a long way to go.

The University of California system started prohibiting research on all Indigenous ancestral remains in 2018. After reports exposed UC Berkeley’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology falling behind on repatriation efforts, the university created a new role for a NAGPRA liaison officer (other schools in the University of California system have committees that serve as NAGPRA liaisons).

Thomas Torma, the officer since July 2020, said he’s only starting to catch up on the more than 9,000 remains and 13,000 funerary objects in Berkeley’s possession. He said the university now intends to finally repatriate all the items.

“I’m glad when (objects) go back, but I try to keep in mind that we still have thousands of ancestors being held at the Hearst, and each time a reminder of the long road we have ahead of us. It’s a little bittersweet because as great as it is to see items go back, it also always reminds me how much work we have to do,” said Torma, who used to be the cultural director for the Wiyot Tribe in California.

Other universities have created similar roles and processes. Vassar College and the University of Tennessee have repatriated thousands of native remains. Indiana University changed its policies last month to stop research on remains and create a board with tribal leaders to facilitate consent that would allow for research or repatriation of remains.

Tribes still face obstacles to getting their artifacts back

But other states still require hoops for tribes to jump through, and local tribes often struggle more to claim objects. In Texas, the local Miakan-Garza tribe, which is not federally recognized, has petitioned the University of Texas at Austin to return ancestral remains for years.

However, objections from federally recognized tribes about the Miakan-Garza tribe’s rightful ownership of the remains, mixed with the university’s strict adherence to NAGPRA guidelines, have prolonged the process.

Many Texas tribes aren’t federally recognized, leaving repatriation to administrators and museum curators and causing only a fraction of items to be returned, according to the Texas Observer. Currently, UT Austin is “optimistic about resolving the situation through a respectful burial process” and has had “positive discussions with members of the Miakan-Garza band as well as multiple federally recognized tribes,” said UT Austin spokesperson J.B. Bird.

Chapman said all these obstacles show why NAGPRA isn’t enough, and why more universities should strive to proactively return items to Indigenous people. Tribes may choose to rebury them, display them in their own museums or keep them safe in storage, but it should ultimately be their choice, he said.

“These were actual, living people and some of my relatives,” Chapman said. “That decision of how to use the items was taken away from them. And the spirit of a law like this should be for quicker repatriation and to repatriate most objects instead of hanging onto things.”

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