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Kentucky institutions begin to make progress repatriating Native American remains

Workers dig at an excavation of a Native American burial mound during an archeological survey project
University of Kentucky
Libraries Special Collections Research Center
An excavation of a Native American burial mound during an archeological survey project by the Kentucky branch of the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, sometime between 1934 and 1942.

More than three decades have passed since Congress demanded museums and government agencies return the remains of Native Americans who were removed from their burial site. Today, thousands of those remains still sit on institutions’ shelves in Kentucky, awaiting action.

Last year, the Filson Historical Society hired Kelly Hyberger under a two-year grant to repatriate the human remains of Native Americans that they kept in storage. At that time, Filson officials knew they had the remains of at least two individuals who, by law, needed to be repatriated to their original tribes. They were people who had been removed from their graves and donated or sold to an institution without any consent from their descendants.

One of Hyberger’s first actions was searching through the society’s archives, looking for any clues about the human remains to identify where they originally were buried and to which tribe they belonged.

“It's really common in most, if not all institutions, to have some level of backlog,” Hyberger said. “So as you start going through that material, you find all kinds of things that you don't expect to find.”

After scouring the archives, Hyberger didn’t just find that information — she also uncovered the remains of at least 18 more people who must be repatriated. According to her, this is not an uncommon phenomenon for institutions.

In 1990, Congress passed a sweeping bill called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA. The legislation required the repatriation of any Native American human remains, funerary objects or sacred objects held by the federal government or any institution receiving federal funding. It set several deadlines for creating an inventory of these items, consulting with involved tribes and eventually repatriating them.

Legislators initially expected the process of repatriating the remains to take roughly five to 10 years. More than 30 years have passed, and many institutions still hold the remains of thousands of Native ancestors.

According to coordinators at Kentucky institutions and tribal nations, the 30-year anniversary of NAGPRA was a wake-up call. The first repatriations for some Kentucky institutions are finally concluding this year.

Exhumed and shelved

Nearly a dozen tribal nations claim swaths of Kentucky including the Iroquois, Chickasaw, Cherokee and Shawnee. For each burial site or ancestor, several tribes could have a claim.

ProPublica found in an analysis that the University of Kentucky has one of the largest collections of Native remains that have not been returned to tribes. According to Celise Chilcote-Fricker, an assistant professor and NAGPRA coordinator at UK, the university currently houses the remains of 4,366 Native ancestors and thousands of funerary objects. Until this year, no ancestors had been repatriated. The University of Louisville holds at least 259 ancestors’ remains and is wrapping up its first repatriation this year.

Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, archeologists, government agencies and ordinary people filled university collections with the remains of Native ancestors. According to Chilcote-Fricker, the vast majority of ancestors in UK’s possession were a consequence of the Works Progress Administration.

Excavation of a Native American Burial Mound during archeological survey project by the Kentucky branch of the Works Progress Administration
University of Kentucky Library Special Collections Research Center
Excavation of a Native American Burial Mound during archeological survey project by the Kentucky branch of the Works Progress Administration

As the government carried out massive public works projects, digging up sites across the country, they encountered countless Native American burial sites. Instead of protecting those graves, the WPA worked to excavate them and deposit the human remains and burial items within institutions like UK’s William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology throughout the 1930s. At U of L, the majority of ancestors came to the museum due to similar state and federally funded works projects in the 1970s and ‘80s.

“At that time, if you're digging a site and you find burials — human remains, human ancestors — it was standard procedure to document and excavate [without consultation with descendants],” said Tom Jennings, assistant professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Archaeology and Cultural Heritage at U of L, where the NAGPRA collections are maintained.

According to Hyberger, several of the ancestors kept at the Filson were donated by private citizens who stumbled upon or actively sought out Native American artifacts.

“Some of the ancestors we hold were from just ordinary people who thought it was okay to pick up a cranium in 1895 and bring it down here to the museum,” Hyberger said. “What was happening in the American psyche that said that this is OK?”

Hyberger in part attributes the obsession with those artifacts to the false and racist idea from that era that Native Americans would soon become extinct and that it was up to white people to preserve their history and study their culture.

People still sometimes find NAGPRA-eligible remains and objects in newly purchased homes, in the back rooms of antique stores, or in the private collections of previous generations. Universities including U of L and UK will occasionally accept them in order to maintain them in the best condition possible and eventually repatriate them along with the rest of the institution’s collection.

“There's all kinds of shows about how cool mummies are and stuff like that,” Jennings said. “Which is great; it gets people interested in the past. And yet, it also creates this mindset that we can just study anything about anyone [without consent].”

The spirit of the law

NAGPRA put the initial onus on institutions to create an inventory of all Native American human remains and associated funerary objects. It requires them to create an inventory of their holdings and identify any geographical and cultural affiliations. The law required the inventories be made in consultation with tribal governments and officials and completed by November 1995.

In the early days of NAGPRA, many institutions used high scientific standards to determine cultural affiliation, according to Kathryn Marklein, an assistant professor and NAGPRA coordinator for U of L. When institutions sent out inventories in the 1990s and early 2000s, they marked much of their NAGPRA collections as “culturally unidentifiable.”

But in 2010, the rules changed. The Department of the Interior decided geographic information was enough to determine cultural affiliation. And if multiple tribes had historical claim to one area, they were to decide for themselves who would take lead on repatriation and reburial.

According to Marklein, the change in rules wasn’t enough to get faculty and museum curators moving, and NAGPRA didn’t have strong mechanisms to ensure compliance.

And at some institutions, including U of L and UK, it took decades before someone advocated for more resources and dedicated staff to come into compliance with NAGPRA.

A Works Progress Administration archaeology crew at the Chiggerville Shell Midden in 1938. More than 100 human burials were excavated at the site.
William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology
A Works Progress Administration archaeology crew at the Chiggerville Shell Midden in 1938. More than 100 human burials were excavated at the site.

According to Miranda Panther, the NAGPRA coordinator for the Eastern Band of Cherokee, the burden is placed heavily on the tribes. Though a university has a set number of tribes represented in their collections, Panther said she has to be in contact with scores of institutions from across the country, wherever the tribe’s ancestors are kept.

“Institutions might not have knowledge about NAGPRA, and they think it's probably overwhelming or difficult to get started. Maybe they don't have the staff or the funding available to do it. And some of those things are an excuse to fall back on,” Panther said. “So the burden is really on us.”

'I wouldn't want my grandparents sitting on a shelf'

For many coordinators, repatriation is a step on a long path towards healing. Marklein said when she first came to U of L, she was largely ignorant of NAGPRA beyond the letter of the law. When she started as a professor, she said she did at times use the university’s NAGPRA collection to instruct high-level students on identifying Native remains without requesting consent from descendants.

“I really regret it,” Marklein said. “I'm probably not alone. But I think that's something all of us need to acknowledge. At least in that acknowledgement, we won't do it again.”

Tonya Tipton, the NAGPRA coordinator for the Shawnee Nation, said she feels she must treat every repatriated person as if they are her own ancestor.

“I wouldn't want my grandparents sitting on a shelf in a box in a cold, dark, usually loud, room,” Tipton said. “I can't imagine feeling that as a person if that was one of my ancestors. It's not right.”

Panther felt the same way and that to her, it is a matter of righting a wrong, rebalancing the scales. She said if this happened to her, she would hope people would care enough to act.

“[Some people] view them as something to study versus thinking that this is someone's great-grandparent or really thinking about what kind of life this person lived and that they had loved ones,” Panther said. “Just because they're 10,000 years old, does that make them any less of a human?”

New investments

According to Panther and Tipton, a shift is beginning to happen at many institutions that have long held onto NAGPRA remains. They said more institutions are reaching out to them, rather than forcing tribes to initiate contact.

U of L’s first repatriation was set to be completed in 2019 when COVID hit. Now, 16 individuals will be reburied in June.

UK’s Webb Museum filed its first repatriation notice for 138 individuals in January, although the tribes involved have yet to determine a date for reburial. Another notice for 472 individuals is in the works now, Chilcote-Fricker said.

Jennings, who started working at U of L in 2018, said he’s noticed a change — not just at his own institution, but at those across the state.

“There's just been a shift all around archaeologists wanting to [repatriate] and putting in more active effort to work with tribal partners,” Jennings said.

Last year, the department of anthropology won a grant to, as part of a larger database grant, catalog all of the university’s NAGPRA collections so they can better share their findings with tribes.

Repatriation is only a small part of Jennings’ and Marklein’s jobs. They both teach classes and have their own research and other duties to attend to.

Chilcote-Fricker was the first person hired at UK to explicitly work with NAGPRA in 2018, but she also teaches a class every semester.

Tipton, with the Shawnee Nation, said she doesn’t harbor negative feelings towards the institutions she works with to repatriate ancestors. She said they are working to correct the mistakes of previous generations with limited resources.

“At all these institutions, most of them are newer employees that have come in that didn’t create [this problem]. And honestly, they don't have enough employees to take care of it,” Tipton said. “Working with them in the consultation process, I think they're being open and honest and doing the best they can with what staff they have.”

According to Tipton, even if institutions had more robust staffing, they would still need to move slowly and thoughtfully. In repatriations, the goal is to recreate the initial burial site as closely as possible. That means reburying ancestors as close to their original site as possible and with all of the same people and objects they were buried alongside with as complete a skeleton as possible.

Early this year, UK announced they would invest more than $889,000 toward NAGPRA responsibilities over the next three years, which Chilcote-Fricker said will create a dedicated team of individuals, including a full-time osteologist and collections specialist.

Even with that investment, Chilcote-Fricker said the work of repatriation will likely not be complete at the end of three years. Her goal is to finish working through the archives in that time so she can provide complete information to tribes as they attempt to determine cultural affiliation and the appropriate reburial arrangements.

“It just takes time to make sure that it's being done correctly and being done with the greatest care and dignity we can afford those individuals,” Chilcote-Fricker said.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.

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