Senators pressure institutions to repatriate Indigenous remains and artifacts
And the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition revealed plans for an online tool that will let Native Americans search for relatives who went to Indian boarding schools.
Back in March, I shared with you the ProPublica report that was released in January.
ProPublica this year is investigating the failure of NAGPRA to bring about the expeditious return of human remains by federally funded universities and museums.
We talked about the handful of colleges and museums that have come forward to begin the process of repatriation in the months since. But there are many institutions that have remained silent on the issue.
Last month, multiple senators sent letters to five institutions identified as having the largest collections of indigenous remains.
In letters sent Thursday to the University of California, Berkeley, Harvard University, the Ohio History Connection, the Illinois State Museum and Indiana University, the senators called the slow pace of repatriations of Native American remains and belongings under the 1990 federal law “unacceptable.”
Earlier this week, Illinois, with the second-largest collection of remains, passed House Bill 3413. The bill will “streamline the process in which Illinois returns Native American remains and materials to their communities.”
That law provides a process for federal agencies and museums receiving federal funds to repatriate or transfer their collections to lineal descendants or tribes. As of 2022, the Illinois State Museum had only returned 2 percent of the 7,700 remains it reported to the U.S. government, or just 156 individuals.
The Dickson Mounds Museum is Illinois’ biggest offender of the federal repatriation law. Based in Fulton County, the museum was built around an exhibit that displayed the open graves of over 200 indigenous people. The exposed human remains were displayed for decades before the exhibit closed in the early 1990s following the passage of the federal repatriation act.
According to the investigation, the museum preemptively designated any remains dated to before 1673 as culturally unidentifiable. When the federal repatriation law was passed, the museum returned at least 117 ancestors to the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma and transferred ownership of more than 32,000 funerary objects to the tribe.
In Virginia, archivist Stephanie Gardener has been working for 12 years to repatriate 4,000 Indigenous artifacts from Bridgewater College’s collection. “Thirty-three years following NAGPRA’s passage, and 12 years into her own work, Gardner is on the cusp of facilitating the repatriation of some of these items.”
“I let the people from other cultures tell me about the items, rather than me telling them,” she said.
Several other museums and other institutions in Virginia have filed notices with the Federal Register in the last year indicating that their archivists and curators will soon follow in Gardner’s footsteps.
A New Online Tool Will Let Native Americans Search for Relatives Who Attended Indian Boarding Schools - Native News online
That is why NABS, a national nonprofit dedicated to truth and healing around Indian boarding schools, created The National Indian Boarding School Digital Archive—NIBSDA for short—that will launch sometime this summer.
To begin, NABS has digitized a collection of 47,000 pages of federal, tribal, and state records from the The National Archives in Seattle, a regional federal record facility of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. The idea is to partner with organizations doing similar work in other regions, such as The Carlisle Indian Digital Resource Center in Pennsylvania, and the Geona Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project, to eventually cover the country, and become the “authoritative center” for Indian boarding school records, according to the digital archivist who designed the database.
Beyond scanning historical documents, the NIBSDA project is about community engagement, and teaching people how to conduct boarding school research.
“We’re trying to create this information literacy around how to conduct boarding school records research, because it is a new thing,” Curley said.
The work—which NABS is funding through various grants—will be ongoing for “years and years and years,” Curley said.
That’s because, in part, the majority of school records have not yet been located, let alone cataloged, according to NABS’ data.
Additionally, 28% of the total records are held at church-run archives, according to NABS.
I am in awe seeing all of the monumental work that is being done on so many levels to bring the ancestors home. There will be more news about indigenous history in the coming months.
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