Push to Return 116,000 Native American Remains Is Long-Awaited

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“The work is never done when it comes to NAGPRA,” said John Stomberg, the Hood Museum’s director.

A new policy announced in March is supposed to help the University of California, Berkeley repatriate more than 9,500 Native American remains. Its collection is the largest one in the country, according to the National Park Service, and it has stayed that way, according to university officials, because previous administrators delayed repatriation proceedings.

“Historically, UC Berkeley has seen repatriation and NAGPRA as a process that conflicts with the research interests of the university,” Thomas Torma, the school’s liaison for the law, said over email. “As a result of these changes, in the past year, we have been able to transfer at least 297 individuals and 15,792 of their belongings back to tribes.”

When remains are returned, tribes have often held poignant reburial ceremonies. After the University of Michigan repatriated the remains of 94 Native Americans and 812 associated funerary objects to the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe in 2014, members stood through freezing temperatures to commemorate the return at a cemetery established in 1995 as a place to rebury their ancestors.

“It is emotional, not just a physical thing we go through with repatriation,” Tony Perry, a participant in the ceremony, told the tribe’s publication at the time, “and it’s a deeply spiritual and emotional thing that comes from the heart.”

By clarifying timelines and closing loopholes in the existing regulations, the Biden administration hopes to hold accountable not just museums but also the many government agencies with Indigenous remains in their possession. Documents from the federal registry indicate that the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the United States Navy and the Army Corps of Engineers continue to revise their inventory tallies, increasing the number of human remains and funerary objects found in their collections, after being called out by the Government Accountability Office more than a decade ago for not fully complying with the law.

Critics of the current system argue that wherever you look, it is hard to detect great progress.

“At the current rate we are going, it’s going to be another seven decades before all 116,000 human remains are addressed,” said Chip Colwell, a former curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science who led its NAGPRA compliance program and later wrote a book about the fight for repatriation. “When leaders look at how much work is to be done, there is a deep sense of frustration.”

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