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As tribes await return of ancestors’ remains, a new database reveals repatriation law’s failures

A group of Native Americans and military personnel walks down a street during a funeral procession.
Presidio of Monterey
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Flickr Creative Commons
In an example of repatriation, the Presidio of Monterey hosted sovereign tribal nations in the repatriation and reburial ceremony of Native American remains in the Presidio of Monterey Cemetery on Oct. 22, 2017.

A new database reveals that museums and universities across the U.S. still hold the remains of more than 100,000 Native Americans, despite a federal law passed more than 30 years ago to help return their remains to tribes.

In the Mountain West, tribes are still waiting for 11,515 of their ancestors’ remains to be made available for return, according to the database, which was built by the nonprofit news organization ProPublica as it investigates the failures of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA.

Under the 1990 law, when an institution makes a connection between tribes and remains, it is required to publish a list of the tribes eligible to make a repatriation claim. ProPublica’s interactive tool — which consists of data up until Dec. 9, 2022 — highlights the lack of progress on that front.

Among Mountain West states, tribes in Arizona are waiting for the highest number of Native American remains to be made available at 5,737. That’s followed by tribes in New Mexico (3,238 remains), Utah (1,377), Colorado (559), Nevada (295), Idaho (145), Wyoming (102) and Montana (62).

ProPublica calls the database “a starting point for understanding the damage done by generations of Americans who stole, collected and displayed the remains and possessions of the continent’s Indigenous peoples – and the work done by tribes and institutions to repatriate those Native ancestors since.”

Nicole Crawford, co-founder of the Stealing Culture project, a Wyoming-based group working with tribes and institutions to facilitate the repatriation process, said museums holding remains need to change their mindsets.

“We put numbers on them, and we put them in a box and we categorize them, and so they essentially become an object,” said Crawford, who is also the director of the University of Wyoming Art Museum, which is not holding any Native American remains. “And I think we need to rethink how we think about objects in the museum to really start this healing process that we can be a part of with the tribes.”

Crawford said many museums don’t have staff dedicated to reporting Native American remains in their possession and engaging with tribes. She said that needs to change, adding that more federal funding could help institutions hire staff that focuses on coordinating repatriation.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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