ProPublica’s “Repatriation Project” has revealed that several museums and universities across the U.S. hold the remains of Indigenous people in their permanent collections three decades after a U.S. law was passed requiring their return.
The project, conducted jointly with NBC News, includes a public database cataloging an estimated 100,000 Native American remains that are held in collections spanning museums, universities, and government agencies.
The investigation examines an apparent lull in national repatriation efforts after the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed in 1990. The legal move forced museums in the U.S. backed with government funding to review their collections for Indigenous remains and initiate their returns.
The investigation found that some museums have utilized a legal loophole in the NAGPRA act that allows requests for items labeled by museum officials as “culturally unidentifiable” to be indefinitely stalled.
News of the project’s findings came a few months after the U.S. Interior Department released proposed changes to the 1990 legislation following a years-long consultation effort with more than 600 U.S. tribes. The proposal, issued in October 2022, is focused on shifting the 30-year-old standard by asking museums to defer to tribal representatives when it comes to the significance of unidentified materials that are the subject of return requests.
Some institutions have responded to the investigation’s findings. New York State Museum has said it is currently in talks with Indigenous tribe representative in New York to carry out its returns under NAGPRA. The Brooklyn Museum said it holds two remains that are potentially of Native American heritage, but that they are culturally unidentified, according to a report by Hyperallergic. The American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan reportedly holds the largest number of Native American remains in New York, with 3,500 sets of remains in their collection.
Universities have responded as well. Stanford, which reportedly holds 36 Native American remains, contested ProPublica’s presentation of the data on the number of returns they’ve made since the 1990 legislation. The university pointed out that the ProPublica report does not account for the number of remains that were returned outside of the NAGPRA purview. Stanford, which oversees an anthropological lab that housed the remains, says it returned more than 1,000 remains prior to 1990.
The project’s findings come as calls for the decolonization of Western institutions have increased in recent years. Along with that trend has come a renewed focus on institutions that hold human remains.
The Pitts River Museum in Oxford, England, for example, holds a large collection of ethnographic materials, and has recently removed human remains from display. Since 2020, it has been disclosing obligations to Indigenous communities in public texts. Other advocates have called for university museums to deaccession holdings of the remains of enslaved people.