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Why Utah’s Natural History Museum is still working to return Native American remains

Native Voices exhibit, Natural History Museum of Utah, courtesy
courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Utah
The Native Voices exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990. It addresses the rights Native Americans have to their descendant's human remains, funerary objects and other cultural items.

It also established a process for tribes and bands to request the return of their dead if they are part of a museum’s or other federal agency’s collection.

In the 33 years since the law's passage, only 48% of Native American remains in the U.S. have been made available to tribes. It’s even less in Utah, where institutions have made only 26% available.

The Natural History Museum of Utah has the most Native American remains in its collection. Alexandra Greenwald, the curator of ethnography, said they are committed to returning all of the remains they are responsible for. So far, it has made 14% of its over 400 reported remains available.

“We’ve been undertaking, especially in the last decade, to work towards repairing what is undoubtedly a damaging legacy of historic and unethical behavior in our field,” Greenwald said.

To do that, the museum consults with a committee including members from all of Utah’s federally recognized tribes. Greenwald said remains from the museum that are culturally affiliated have been returned in all cases where tribal communities were interested and able to accept them. Some are still being held because tribes don’t have a location for reburial.

Betsy Chapoose of the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation said it’s important for each person to be returned so they can continue their journey and be at peace. The same goes for items that are part of the burial and carry an essence from that person.

“Why would it be important if somebody found your grandmother to be returned to your family? It’s no different,” Chapoose said. “These are people. They’re not archeological relics.”

Many of the remains at the museum, Greenwald said, are culturally unaffiliated because they are Fremont Indians, although Fremont is not what they called themselves. These people’s connection to tribes today is unclear and this previously meant the bodies could not be returned. But an update to NAGPRA allows repatriation based on geographic affiliation as well.

Greenwald said the other remains have not been repatriated because the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies are responsible for them.

However, Ash Ngu, a ProPublica reporter who helped gather and present the data, said they got their data from the National Park Service. The agency maintains a database of the number of Native American remains that institutions report.

“When institutions sort of say, OK, the data is out of date or it’s inaccurate, we really welcome them to update their data with the national NAGPRA program,” Ngu said.

The ProPublica investigation also found that some U.S. institutions found a loophole. By categorizing everything in their collection as “culturally unidentifiable,” they were able to keep remains and funerary objects.

When NAGPRA was passed, it was estimated that it would take 10 years to repatriate all objects and remains to Native American tribes. But even after 33 years, it is estimated that repatriation will take another 70 years to complete.

Greenwald said part of the problem is tribes aren’t given enough resources. Systemic inequities cause the process to be drawn out and tribal communities are often working with limited funding and staffing.

“The speed with which a well-funded public museum can move is different than the speed with which tribal communities want to move or can move.”

Another cause for delay is NAGPRA leaves the final decision for where remains go up to federal agencies. Even if the remains are classified as unidentifiable, Chapoose said they can be claimed based on time. Meaning, if tribes have stories that tell about the time or place where remains were taken from.

“It really has to be a collaborative process to get these remains returned to, back into, Mother Earth,” Chapoose said.

Kristine Weller is a newsroom intern at KUER. She’s only been a journalist for a year but is excited to see what the future holds.
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