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Ancestors are coming home.
Trigger warning: "The remains of more than 110,000 Native American, Native Hawaiian and Alaska Natives’ ancestors are still held by museums, universities and federal agencies."
American institutions are still holding 110,000 indigenous remains. Despite the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a federal law meant to facilitate the return of indigenous remains and artifacts from federally funded universities and museums.
As the United States pushed Native Americans from their lands to make way for westward expansion throughout the 1800s, museums and the federal government encouraged the looting of Indigenous remains, funerary objects and cultural items. Many of the institutions continue to hold these today — and in some cases resist their return despite the 1990 passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
“We never ceded or relinquished our dead. They were stolen,” James Riding In, then an Arizona State University professor who is Pawnee, said of the unreturned remains.
ProPublica this year is investigating the failure of NAGPRA to bring about the expeditious return of human remains by federally funded universities and museums. Our reporting, in partnership with NBC News, has found that a small group of institutions and government bodies has played an outsized role in the law’s failure.
Ten institutions hold about half of the Native American remains that have not been returned to tribes. These include old and prestigious museums with collections taken from ancestral lands not long after the U.S. government forcibly removed Native Americans from them, as well as state-run institutions that amassed their collections from earthen burial mounds that had protected the dead for hundreds of years. Two are arms of the U.S. government: the Interior Department, which administers the law, and the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s largest federally owned utility.
An Interior Department spokesperson said it complies with its legal obligations and that its bureaus (such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Land Management) are not required to begin the repatriation of “culturally unidentifiable human remains” unless a tribe or Native Hawaiian organization makes a formal request.
In the weeks that followed this report, many institutions nationwide began looking into their collections, identifying remains, and some initiating the process of repatriation to Tribal Nations.
Now the issue of private collection:
Stolen indigenous remains and artifacts are not isolated to institutions. The private sale of unethically sourced indigenous regalia and jewelry is a prolific issue globally.
Eight years ago, the FBI made the largest seizure of stolen artifacts and Native American human remains in its history from an amateur archaeologist in Indiana. Now, with the majority of ancestors and artifacts returned to their respective nations, tribal leaders and experts on the case say the bureau has created a model for timely yet thorough repatriation.
Since 2014, a temperature-controlled Federal Bureau of Investigation warehouse in Indianapolis has become a waiting room for thousands of stolen artifacts and the remains of hundreds of Native American ancestors that had been dug out of the ground by amateur archaeologist Don Miller from the 1940s through the 2000s.
In late 2013, FBI Art Theft Program agent Tim Carpenter received a tip that an elderly man in rural Indiana had a collection of thousands of priceless artifacts that he had personally excavated from archeological grounds in the U.S. and abroad over more than six decades.
“There was a period where, every summer, he would leave Indiana and drive for vacation to South Dakota and spend weeks digging,” Cusack-McVeigh said.
“I want to dispel the notion that Don was a responsible collector,” Carpenter told Vanity Fair in 2021. “He was not. He was a grave robber.”
Since last June, there have been more than 70 auctions—both international and domestic—selling potentially sensitive Native American cultural items. The Association on American Indian Affairs is educating buyers to avoid the corrupt and potentially poor investments into what is likely stolen Indigenous art and cultural belongings.
The oldest nonprofit serving Indian Country warned potential collectors this week about an upcoming auction of nearly 400 Indigenous cultural items, at least one of which it believes to be fake, and all of which were likely stolen from Native lands.
My father, Bob Sam, and repatriation work
My dad has been working in repatriation for our tribe for many years. As a child, I spent days in the cemeteries with him as he worked. He is widely recognized in Alaska for the work he has done.
Robert (Bob) Sam is a member of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska and a current member of the Sitka Tribal Council. He is a nationally and internationally known Tlingit storyteller. He is considered an expert at reinterment and repatriation of human remains and has spent decades restoring forgotten, neglected, destroyed, and vandalized Alaska Native and Russian Orthodox cemeteries in Sitka, Juneau and beyond. His repatriation efforts have included work in Japan to assist the Ainu. He has traveled around the world sharing storytelling with people from all walks of life and is an integral part of Alaska Native relations training for federal and state employees.
This webinar is three hours long, his portion begins at 33:39.
My father has been working on researching the history of Morningside Hospital in Oregon. Where starting in 1904 the Us Department of Interior tasked Morningside “to care for people who were mentally ill and/or had developmental disabilities from the territory of Alaska”.
From other patient data, the Lost Alaskans Project found that initially miners and other white adults were sent to Morningside, but later on, it was more likely to be Alaska Natives and children who were sent
Morningside Hospital was a psychiatric hospital in Portland, Oregon, United States. The hospital was contracted to provide care for people committed to psychiatric hospitals from Alaska from 1904 to 1960. For nearly sixty years the hospital sat on a 47-acre parcel at the junction of SE Stark Street and 96th Avenue. Formerly agricultural land, the site was developed as a psychiatric hospital complex and working farm in 1910. In 1970 the site was redeveloped as a shopping mall and Adventist Medical Center.
In 1904, Morningside was awarded a contract from the U.S. Department of the Interior to care for people who were mentally ill and/or had developmental disabilities from the territory of Alaska, who would constitute the bulk of the hospital's patients throughout its tenure. Patients had previously been sent to the Oregon Insane Asylum. Between 1905 and 1968, nearly 5,000 patients were admitted to Morningside, not including the roughly 40 admitted monthly on behalf of Multnomah County, which used the hospital for emergency care.
A report chronicled hospital admittances from 1904-1916: "A total of 576 patients were admitted during that time, with 33.5% or 192 still in the hospital, 21% died while there, 37.7% were discharged , 7.2% eloped, and .3% or two persons were deported from the US." From other patient data, the Lost Alaskans Project found that initially miners and other white adults were sent to Morningside, but later on, it was more likely to be Alaska Natives and children who were sent.
After Dr. Henry Waldo Coe's death in 1927, Morningside was taken over by his son, Wayne Coe. Although not a medical doctor, Wayne Coe acted as hospital administrator and eventually as Chairman of the Henry Waldo Coe Foundation.
In 1955, Morningside came under attack after a bill was introduced by U.S. Rep. Edith Green (D) of Oregon, to transfer care of Alaskan patients to Alaska. Questions of financial impropriety raised during hearings led to an investigation of the hospital by the U.S. General Accounting Office in 1956. By this time, Wayne Coe's son Henry Coe, had entered the family business. The Coes were accused of using hospital funds for personal expenses, including trips to South Africa and Mexico, a beach property in Gearhart and a ranch in Stanfield, Oregon. The Coes were also accused of "outrageous abuse of privilege" including the use of patient labor for home and hospital building and maintenance, under the guise of occupational therapy. The Coes denied the charges, defended the hospital practices and called the investigation "rude, uncivil and insulting." Ultimately, no criminal charges were filed and Morningside was fully reaccredited in 1957. By 1964, Morningside's reputation had recovered to the degree that it was featured in an Oregonian article about its success as an "open hospital." Under the open hospital model, patients were controlled through sedatives rather than lock and key.
The Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act was passed in 1956 and Alaskan patients began being moved from Morningside to new facilities in their home state.
The work continues
As this dark history comes to light, many are working to make sure these remains are treated with dignity and respect. My father is busy teaching others to also do this work and much has been accomplished because of his resolve and dedication.
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