WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of 13 U.S. Senators is asking universities and museums with large collections of Native American human remains why they’ve failed to repatriate them to tribes—more than 30 years after a federal law was passed that compelled them to do so.  

In letters sent to the University of California-Berkeley, Harvard University, Illinois State Museum, Indiana University, and the Ohio History Connection, the senate group—led by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Lisa Murkwoski (R-AK) of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs—urged the institutions to comply with the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and “expeditiously return” cultural items and ancestral remains. 

Never miss Indian Country’s biggest stories and breaking news. Sign up to get our reporting sent straight to your inbox every weekday morning. 

Signed into law in 1990, NAGPRA directs federal agencies and museums with possession or control over holdings or collections of Native American human remains and funerary objects to inventory them, identify their geographic and cultural affiliation, and notify the affected Indian tribes or Native Hawaiian organization. 

The five institutions that received the letters possess some of the largest collections of Native American human remains, according to federal records. Many were identified in recent media reports, including Native News Online reporting and a ProPublica and NBC News investigation that highlights how prestigious universities and museums have delayed repatriation requests and failed the mandate set by NAGPRA. 

“Delayed repatriation is delayed justice for Native peoples,” the senators said in letters to the five institutions. “For too long, Native ancestral remains and cultural items have been unconscionably denied their journey home by institutions, desecrated by scientific study, publicly displayed as specimens, left to collect dust on a shelf, or simply thrown in a box and forgotten in a museum storeroom.”

In the letters, the senators requested that the universities and museums provide an update over the next 60 days on their current process and pace of repatriation, as well as information about their policies and practices pursuant to NAGPRA.  

The letters were also signed by Senators Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), Patty Murray (D-WA), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ), Tina Smith (D-MN), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Jon Tester (D-MT), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

The letters note positive impacts that NAGPRA has created, but also mentions “troubling testimony” about the failure of institutions to complete repatrations in a timely manner. 

“While NAGPRA has had positive and far-reaching impacts, such as improved relationships between museums, institutions, federal agencies, and Native peoples, and significant, successful repatriation of many cultural items and ancestral remains, Congress continues to receive troubling testimony detailing ongoing issues related to the timely completion of NAGPRA repatriations,” the senators write.

National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp issued a statement commending the Senators' bipartisan efforts. "For centuries, our cultural items, our sacred items, and our ancestors have been taken from us and kept from us, but today's efforts acknowledge what we have long said: there is no acceptable reason to continue this practice and no acceptable reason for delays—now is the time to right this historic and ongoing wrong," Sharp said.

More Stories Like This

Coalition Gets $4 Million to Fund Collection of Oral Testimonies of Indian Boarding School Survivors
LA's Largest-Ever Land Back an 'Important Step' in the Movement
'It’s happy sad': Two Oyate Boys Leave Carlisle, Others Left Behind
'I just don’t want it to die in front of me' | One Ho-Chunk Man's Mission to Save Ho-Chunk Language
Association on American Indian Affairs Strengthens Executive Leadership with New Hire

Native News is free to read.

We hope you enjoyed the story you've just read. For the past dozen years, we’ve covered the most important news stories that are usually overlooked by other media. From the protests at Standing Rock and the rise of the American Indian Movement (AIM), to the ongoing epidemic of Murdered and Missing Indigenous People (MMIP) and the past-due reckoning related to assimilation, cultural genocide and Indian Boarding Schools.

Our news is free for everyone to read, but it is not free to produce. That’s why we’re asking you to make a donation to help support our efforts. Any contribution — big or small — helps.  Most readers donate between $10 and $25 to help us cover the costs of salaries, travel and maintaining our digital platforms. If you’re in a position to do so, we ask you to consider making a recurring donation of $12 per month to join the Founder's Circle. All donations help us remain a force for change in Indian Country and tell the stories that are so often ignored, erased or overlooked.

Donate to Native News Online today and support independent Indigenous journalism. Thank you. 

About The Author
Brian Edwards
Author: Brian EdwardsEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Brian Edwards is the interim managing editor of Native News Online and Tribal Business News.