An example of an excavation of a Native American gravesite. A group of college students open an Indian mound near Rising Sun, Ill., discovering bit by bit a 2,000-year-old civilization, Aug. 14, 1950.
Melissa: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Go back with me to the start of our nation. As the US spread westward, so too did brutality towards native tribes already living on the land. When archeology gained momentum in the late 1800s, archeologists excavated Native American grave sites and took human remains and funeral objects to be studied or put on exhibit in museums. In 1990, in an attempt to remedy this, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, also known as NAGPRA.
It was seen as landmark human rights legislation with the idea that institutions review what they had taken from Native American grave sites and work to repatriate them with the tribes. Nearly three decades later, an investigation from ProPublica found that more than a hundred thousand Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Alaskan native ancestors are still held by museums, universities, and federal agencies. I spoke with a ProPublica reporter about the ongoing challenge of repatriation.
Mary Hudetz: My name is Mary Hudetz. I'm a reporter with ProPublica focusing on tribal issues in the southwest.
Melissa: Talk to me about how it's going after passage. Then in the context of implementation, how has implementation gone?
Mary: Yes, I would say to get to implementation, I would mention the scale of what these inventories Congress had museums produced, showed. It was massive. Hundreds of thousands of human remains were in more than 600 institutions across the country. Since then, in 30 years, a lot of museums have really fallen behind in repatriating back to tribes. There can be a lot of reasons for that, but one thing we do hear a lot is that museums are resistant to returning human remains back to people who request them or they make a process that is far more complex than Congress ever intended for the process to be.
Melissa: When the law was passed, the Congressional budget office estimated it was going to take maybe a decade to repatriate everything, but now we're talking about three decades later, 30 years. What happened?
Mary: One side of that, that some folks feel that the United States or Congress did not put enough resources behind the law, maybe, especially for the tribes that have to travel across the country to a museum and start to review the collections and make a claim. On the flip side, there has been a lot of discussion, decades of discussion about these different mechanisms in the law that have allowed museums to basically declare that they don't know which tribe to affiliate to despite maybe having clear geographic information about where excavations occurred, and therefore, which tribes could be tied to them.
Institutions can say, we have this whole collection excavated from a site say in the southwest, but we can't say which tribe to repatriate to. Rather than work through, maybe say that on dilemma and consult with tribes, a lot of institutions were able to declare what they had as culturally unidentifiable. A lot of people would call it a loophole. A museum could say, we have this whole collection, but by not being sure who to return it to, we are going to label it as culturally unidentifiable.
There's nothing in the law to mandate that the museum truly mandate that the museum does the work to figure out who to repatriate to, and therefore, then they can keep it.
Melissa: You're mostly name-checking museums here. Maybe this is just from my own standpoint because I'm a college professor, but I'm also interested in the other kinds of institutions that have these remains. Federal agencies, but universities, part of what I did was go on the ProPublica side and do the little search. Does your university still hold indigenous remains? Can you say more about this?
Mary: In addition to museums collecting a lot, I think they set the like standard in history and say the 1800s of starting to do these major excavations. Harvard University was also an institution that did a ton of excavation at that time, and they had established a museum called the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology. For that, in museum, then they started to collect a lot. A lot of universities across the United States really started to do the same. I had one source who mentioned his name is Tony Platt, and his work primarily focuses on University of California Berkeley.
In the late 1800s, or even really through much of the 20th century, a lot of universities conducted excavations of Native American grave sites to build collections, but as Tony Platt mentions, there was this kind of idea that to be a great university of the United States, you had to do this to be considered a serious research institution.
Melissa: I will just note I am a professor at Wake Forest University, and of course, it was the first thing I did was to go and search. According to the ProPublica database, the Wake Forest University Archeology labs hold remains from at least 98 sites, and that 0% made available for return. Just take that case for me. What does that mean? What do you mean not made available for return? This goes to your point about the complicated nature that they're making a claim that there is no way to know to whom to repatriate.
Mary: The way we decided on the term holdings to not be made available is that they have not gone through the process that really is set up in the law to make group patriot possible, which means they maybe have not yet or not yet fully consulted with tribes to decide who to return what they have to. A lot of museums will argue that that process is expensive or it requires resources that they don't have. I think one of the questions that we often see when we see 0% made available for return or 0% repatriated, is why in 30 years has that worked, not been completed or even when it's 0%, why has that worked, not even really seem to have begun?
Melissa: Let's take a quick pause with me, more with Mary Hudetz in just a moment. I'm back with ProPublica's Mary Hudetz and we're talking about the repatriation of indigenous remains. I was just one more to call here is the Tennessee Valley Authority apparently has the 8th largest collection of remains. Now, unlike many universities, Tennessee Valley Authority does seem to have made some substantial portion actually available for return, although certainly nothing like 100%.
I guess I'm also just wondering, I guess I understand how a university's archeology department or a museum ends up with these artifacts. What is going on with the Tennessee Valley Authority, do you know?
Mary: Yes, I believe with the Tennessee Valley Authority, they amassed a massive number of ancestral remains. I think that could have very much been a result of the making of the utility, the extents to which construction resulted in disturbing many, many bureau sites throughout that region, primarily is southeastern United States. Then a lot of time passes and Tennessee Valley Authority is really interesting because I think they actually went for quite a while after the last passage of not really making any significant progress in returning what they had.
About 10 years ago, the Government Accountability Office did a report where they really looked at federal institutions and their compliance with NAGPRA. That report was to really scrutinize the Tennessee Valley Authority. Since then, while the work has been ongoing at the TBA, certainly we have seen a lot, if you were to look at our app and the charts we have over time, the timelines, we see a lot of progress being made since the GAO report came out. That to me, I think shows, I think it's just a really interesting example of seeing how when called out essentially an institution or agency can begin to act.
Melissa: Why does this matter? What difference does it make?
Mary: There's a lot of different layers I think to that answer. First and foremost, for native people in a lot of cultures, not every culture is the same, but a lot of cultures, I think respect for those who came before you for your ancestors and understanding that maybe their sacrifices or their ability to develop aspects of your culture that you still practice today deserve more respect, but also, I think then there's another layer. A lot of these excavations happened at extremely difficult time for Native people in history with land loss happening, lives, and land loss, actually.
It was a time I think, we think about our ancestors as Native people, and that their dignity as living people was being really challenged or at least there were attempts by US policies to take that away from them. Then to add the layer that it was also happening to your deceased, I think, just adds to the injury of it all. Fast forward into the present, you think about how the institutions that have collected from that time continue to hold human remains from that time. It matters because I think institutions with a lot of ways might need to really think about their past and address how it is that they came to collect what they had.
Melissa: What are some of the ways, given that this legislation exists, it is enforced, it's the law, what can--? People who are listening to The Takeaway right now who're like, "You know what? I don't want to be going to an institution engaging with an institution that hasn't at least started this process." What are some of the ways that people can act in their own communities?
Mary: I think finding ways to have the conversation in your community about the institution where maybe you take your families to see educational exhibits, but to ask the institutions. I guess, as a reporter, we're asking institutions on why they have what they have, why haven't returned it. You don't have to be a reporter to also ask those questions. Share your thoughts with us, as well as we're going to keep doing this recording for some time. We want to hear the range of thoughts and discussion that's happening out there about this topic.
Melissa: Mary Hudetz is a reporter at ProPublica focusing on travel issues throughout the southwest. Mary, thank you so much for joining The Takeaway.
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