Though federal law requires federally funded museums to return Native American human remains and sacred objects to appropriate tribes and their descendants, five institutions in Connecticut have yet to fully comply.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed in 1990 with the intent of returning objects, including human bones, that had been taken by museums and private collectors from Native American burial sites for anthropological study. But a recent investigation from ProPublica found that there are hundreds of thousands of Indigenous human remains in U.S. museums that have yet to be repatriated.
In Connecticut, the Yale Peabody Museum has far and away the most unrepatriated human remains: The museum has made available for return just over half of the remains in its collection. The remains of at least 300 Indigenous individuals have not yet been made available for repatriation — that is, they have not gone through the process of consulting with tribes on cultural affiliation.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart, an assistant professor of Native and Indigenous studies at Yale University, became involved with repatriation efforts in October of last year. On a tour of the Peabody, Hobart, who is Kanaka Maoli or Indigenous Hawaiian, asked if the museum possessed iwi, or ancestral bones from Hawaii. The answer was yes.
The remains had already been cleared for repatriation. By chance, a Hawaiian repatriation expert would be at Vassar College to transfer remains to Hawaii the following week. Hobart, alongside two native Hawaiian undergraduate Yale students, began an intensive week of learning repatriation protocols and customs for working with the dead. Generally, learning repatriation protocols and customs for working with the dead takes a lot of training. But Hobart and the three Yale students had just over a week.
“Very often, when repatriation happens from institutions like this, it doesn’t involve community members within the institution,” she said. “There isn’t a lot of thought put into the fact that there may be community members who are here at Yale and for whom these processes are really meaningful and very fraught.”
That student involvement was essential, Hobart said.
“It was really key for me to think about who was here, and who could really participate in such a way that we could really show these ancestors that we understood what it meant for them to be here for 150 years … and essentially forgotten about,” she said. “I don’t know how to describe the feeling like, it wasn’t like happy. And it wasn’t sad. We weren’t doing something heroic, but we were doing a small thing that could correct one of many, many wrongs that have been done over an extended period of time.”
For its part, the Peabody Museum at Yale, where the bones were housed, says it’s committed to righting those wrongs. Part of that commitment includes a recent approval from Yale to increase the number of staff members working on NAGPRA compliance from one to three.
“It is a lot harder to undo this tragic legacy than it was to commit it,” said Chris Renton, director of marketing and communications at the Peabody.
While many of the human remains in Yale’s collection were donated, others were removed by Yale itself. Records show, for example, the Yale Peabody Alaska expedition removed the remains of at least two individuals from their resting places in the 1930s.
“Our impression is that museums, not just the Peabody, but museums generally, have completely changed in that respect,” Renton said. “We have no interest in holding on to, to these human remains, we want to repatriate them as quickly as possible. But to do it respectfully, to do it with cultural sensitivity is a sometimes long and difficult process.”
Museums might have to speed up the process in the coming years. The U.S. Department of the Interior has proposed stricter deadlines for the NAGPRA process. For instance, museums and agencies would have to update their inventories within two years of the proposed rule changes going into effect.
Jessie Cohen, repatriation registrar at the Peabody, says that it’s a unique moment where both the law and a general cultural shift are pushing the process forward.
“I think that there’s been a reckoning for museums in the last decade or so of colonial legacies,” she said. “But beyond that, there have been rumblings for years now that the NAGPRA regulations might change. There’s a push now to get ready to prepare for the new regulations.”
NAGPRA data, which is maintained by the National Parks Service, isn’t always up to date. For example, the dataset shows that Wesleyan University has the remains of five individuals that have not gone through the NAGPRA process. However, a university spokesperson said there are a total of 15 individuals in the collection, seven of which are culturally unaffiliated and eight of which have no records or identifying information but are presumed to be Native American.
Similarly, the NAGPRA database shows that the State Museum of Natural History at UConn has made available for return all of the remains in its collection, but the museum still has remains that have yet to be reported.
“We are actively working on still going through other elements of our collection, and we’re also working on several consultations [with tribes] right now,” said Jacqueline Veninger-Robert, the NAGPRA coordinator at UConn. “We hope that those will be in the final stages soon, and then once they do, that data will then be also sent to national NAGPRA as well.”
Records also show that the Stamford Museum has the remains of at least eight Indigenous people. The Accountability Project was initially told that the museum knew nothing about NAGPRA, but it later said in an official statement that its total inventory of remains has been available for repatriation since the ’90s. The Accountability Project could not find and the Stamford Museum did not provide records that corroborate this account.
On the other hand, the Barnum Museum says — and museum records support — it completed its repatriation process in 2002 with the burial of the single skull in its collection, but that has not yet been accounted for in the data. And, the Bruce Museum says it completed the last hand-delivery of the remains last year.
“I don’t want to be like overly critical of efforts that have been that are actively being made to right these historical wrongs,” Hobart said. “But of course, it’s not happening quickly enough, and it will never happen quickly enough because it shouldn’t have happened in the first place.”
In the meantime, Hobart hopes museums will continue to involve local community members in what can be an emotional repatriation process.
EDITOR’S NOTE: After the publication of this article, the Yale Peabody Museum sent the following statement to clarify their NAGPRA compliance: “All human remains in the collection of the Yale Peabody Museum are available for consultation and repatriation. The Peabody is in full compliance with NAGPRA and, according to federal data, has repatriated 45% of the remains it has held in its collection.”