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Alaska Native cultural experts say more work on repatriation needs done

May 17, 2021

In this 2017 photo, Russian Orthodox Father Innocent Dresdow performs service on the remains in the room where they’re being kept, in a lower level of the Alutiiq Museum. (Photo by April Laktonen Counceller / Alutiiq Museum)

In early 2021, the Harvard Peabody Museum issued a statement apologizing for its reluctance working with Tribes to return some remains and funerary objects.

The social unrest of 2020 reignited the conversation of returning ancestral remains and sacred objects to their people. 

Since contact, Indigenous people and settlers have had a contentious relationship, particularly as settlers appropriated items from traditional Native homelands. These items include totem poles, funerary and cultural objects – even remains of Indigenous ancestors.

Examples include in the late 1800s when the Edward Harriman Expedition removed a Teikweidi memorial pole from Southeast Alaska (1899). Or when anthropologist  Aleš Hrdlička, a Czech-born anthropologist in the early 1900s known for unorthodox collection methods , such as stripping decomposing flesh from bones, or discarded the remains of an infant found in a cradleboard and sent it  to the American Museum of Natural History.

“They didn't have any shame, you know, taking even from graves.”

That’s Rosita Worl, the president of Sealaska Heritage Institute, a private non-profit cultural organization based in Juneau, Alaska. Worl earned her masters and doctorate in anthropology from Harvard university.

“They just came and took things off of graves,” said Worl, who carries the Tlingit names Yeidiklasókw and Kaaháni, and is Tlingit, Ch’áak’ (Eagle) moiety of the Shangukeidí­ (Thunderbird) Clan from the Kawdliyaayi Hít (House Lowered From the Sun) in Klukwan. “You think about Southeast, it was amazing that we even had anything left.”

Often times, remains would be removed from Tribes -- without consent or consultation – and stored in university or museum collections – even in international institutions.

“I mean, museums themselves are institutions of colonialism,” Worl said. “They came in, they expropriated cultural objects, human remains, and more often without the permission of Native American Tribes and others. What they saw as art, we saw as cultural objects.”

And not until the early 1990s, did the Indigenous peoples in the United States have much recourse.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act – or NAGPRA for short -- gave Tribes a legal avenue to pursue the return of remains and some funerary objects.

Part of that NAGPRA requires publicly funded universities and museums to document and report the remains and funerary objects within their collection. The summaries are searchable by institutions; states the remains are held; and even the states and general regions of origin.

After a year filled with the Black Lives Matter movement and toppling of colonial monuments and statues, the Peabody Museum announced in January it had about 15 remains of African Americans or those of African decent who likely lived before 1865 and may have been enslaved.

According to museum director Jane Pickering, the museum pledged to try to return those remains to the appropriate communities.

“We felt that this was the moment that the university really needed to engage with this issue,”v Pickering said during a interview via virtual teleconference. “There are other institutions that have been thinking along these lines as well, but that it was time for us to really face up to that history as a university, as an institution.”

The release stated that a steering committee would help direct a “multi-year, cross-departmental initiative” to assess its procedures.)

Harvard Peabody’s collection includes several Alaska Native cultural objects and at least one report of remains from the Aleutians West region.

In a January statement , Harvard Peabody said it was working toward consultations with Tribes to return remains and funerary objects in compliance with NAGPRA. And it pledged to develop better policies to address its previous reluctance of turning over some objects.

But Tribes and Native-based organizations like the Association of American Indian Affairs pushed back and questioned the museum’s process. 

Shannon O’Loughlin is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the chief executive and attorney for the association, which formed in 1922 to serve Indian Country by protecting sovereignty and preserving culture.

“Harvard tends to cause delay, refuses to make decisions. And often causes extensive burden on Tribes by forcing them to produce evidence of cultural affiliation so they have a long history. 

O’Loughlin says she’s concerned Harvard-educated students would go on to other institutions and perpetuate the same harmful repatriation practices and procedures.

“They have developed their inventories out of alignment with what NAGPRA requires,” she said. “They've done so by failing to consult with tribes before they completed their inventory process.” 

O’Loughlin says that Harvard Peabody categorized some remains and items as culturally unidentifiable – which means Tribes must provide even more evidence to make a claim.

“That a people can have control and dominion over other peoples to the extent of outlawing their religions and cultures and taking away those things that support that culture's identity and health is its thinking about that, you know, today that institutions still carry on that that racism," O’Loughlin said. "Much of their collections may be obtained from the theft and violence of other peoples. We wouldn't allow that (today).” 

Phil Deloria (Standing Rock Sioux Tribe) is a history professor at Harvard University, where he teaches subjects like environmental history and the American West. Deloria says a 2010 amendment to NAGPRA was supposed to lay out other pathways to repatriate culturally unaffiliated – or unidentified -- remains.

“In that early moment, museums, institutions were required to prepare inventories to consult with Tribes on these inventories with the goal of identifying as many kinds of remains and cultural objects that could be culturally affiliated with tribes,” said Deloria, who also currently chairs the Peabody’s NAGPRA faculty committee.  

“And there's a certain kind of set of standards of evidence that suggests and many, many things end up in this kind of bucket of the culturally unidentified.”

The Association of American Indian Affairs sent a letter urging Harvard Peabody to change its practices – and the organization’s CEO O’Loughlin hopes that Tribes have greater opportunity to go through the disposition process.

More than 600 people and organizations signed on in support of the association’s efforts.

And Deloria recognizes the amount of work a Tribe must go through to make a claim – but says it’s an important part of the process.

“I have come to the perhaps odd view that the bureaucratic process, the administrative apparatus, the research, the collaborative things, is a really important part of doing a kind of form of justice and honor to the to the objects and to the human remains,” Deloria said. “It's also the case that an institution needs to make sure that they repatriating to the right people.” 

Harvard Peabody claims it has repatriated about 30 percent of its collection. The Association of American Indian Affairs says that number is closer to 15 percent and the museum may be counting remains it’s coordinating with other museums.

But for Sealaska Heritage President Rosita Worl who worked in the Harvard Peabody Museum, the overall impact is clear:

“To see that they had 5,000 human remains after 30 some years, you know, I was horrified when I saw that.”

NAGPRA was intended to give Tribes a pathway to return and repatriate cultural objects and remains. But it isn’t without its problems – and Tribes still have a lot of work to continue fighting for repatriation.

Father Innocent Dresdow turns into the room where the remains are being held and continues his prayer. Attendees, including descendants and museum staff, are standing in the hall located in the museum’s lower level. (Photo by Kayla Desroches/KMXT) Edit | Remove   Colonization's dark legacy 

In Alaska, repatriations can range from as small as an individual bone or skull, up to hundreds of sets of remains.

Between 1910 and 1941, Czech anthropologist Aleš Hrdlička curated the U.S. Museum of Natural History.

In the 1930s he removed remains of more than 1,000 individuals and funerary objects from Larsen Bay and brought them to the Smithsonian Institute.

In the early 1990s, the Smithsonian Institute returned many of those remains to the community.

Here’s former Larsen Bay resident and Alutiiq Museum executive director April Laktonen Counceller:

“It was the first time where our people really began to understand why it was so important to have control over our own cultural heritage and by extension, our ancestral remains,” Counceller said. “It took years and lots of lawyers.” 

That repatriation request process began in 1987, and hundreds of those ancestors were put to rest in 1991.

The Smithsonian repatriation isn’t covered under NAGPRA. Instead the Smithsonian based its policy on a 1989 law that authorized the National Museum of the American Indian.

One of the criticisms of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is that it puts a huge burden of proof on Tribes who may not have access to the necessary records.

On top of that, the people who took those remains or other objects didn’t always keep the best records. 

Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl received her master’s and doctorate in anthropology from Harvard University.

Worl also worked in the Peabody Museum, and served on (2000-2007, 2009-2013) and chaired (2009-2013) a review committee that worked toward repatriation.

She also initiated several repatriation claims – including repatriation of a totem pole taken from Southeast Alaska in 1899.

“We even had a repatriation claim from there with a big ceremony. I think we took one of the Harryman repatriated one of the Harriman expedition totem poles. It was from Saxman and then the Saxman people.” 

Worl has sat on both sides of the repatriation table.

“In my time on the review committee, I was in meetings across the country. And it was just heartbreaking. and, you know, almost every meeting where we would have Tribal members begging for the return of their ancestral remains and in NAGPRA, we do have this term called culturally unidentifiable human remains,” Worl said. “According to the records, they couldn't figure out where those these ancestral remains came from. And so Native Americans across the country would be just pleading, you know, please return our ancestors.”

Worl says that Tribes have to provide “the preponderance of the evidence.”

Tribes have to prove a claim using geographical information, kinship, biological, and anthropological linguistics. Recently repatriation committees began accepting oral traditions.

“I will tell you that initiating a repatriation claim is quite expensive and especially if it should rise to a dispute.” Worl had to recuse herself when the NAGPRA review committee on which she served had to handle two disputes. She says those disputes cost more than $100,000.

“A repatriation claim requires significant research because you have to prove with the documentation,” she said. you can't just say, you know, this is my grandfather's clan hat. “You have to prove through all the documentation that it belongs to a clan. So it's really it's really imbalanced.”

And she says museums aren’t always forthright with sharing documentation.

Sometimes remains and objects are collected by federal and state agencies, and then turned over to a university or museum.

One of those repatriation priorities for the Alutiiq Museum was the return of ancestral remains from Chirikof Island, which is about 100 miles southwest of Kodiak.

Alutiiq Museum executive director April Laktonen Counceller – who is a Tribal member of the Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak – says many of the remains were from a Russian Orthodox graveyard that eroded onto the beach.

Chirikof Island was managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Following excavation in the 1960s, the remains were taken to the University of Wisconsin: 

“They were kind of shipped around and traded around with no surviving documentation and ended up at Indiana University at Bloomington, which was not incredibly cooperative."

Counceller says the Alutiiq Museum sought the release of those ancestral remains for about 15 years, before the Department of Interior’s legal division became involved.

“A difficult thing to be there for the final part of that struggle to get those ancestors returned because we felt like we weren't being heard,” Counceller said. “The archeologist who had possession of the remains seemed to feel that it was their life's work or have some sort of ownership over the story of them. We asked for copies of all of the research, documentation on the remains and the catalog, which we knew they had, and they refused."

That’s when the Army Corps of Engineers performed another cataloguing of the collection.

Even the bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church of America got involved. He sent a letter of support asking for the return of the remains so they could be reburied – and for the records to be released.

“That whole situation made me, as a Tribal member, feel a little bit traumatized because we see these people as our ancestors,” Counceller said. “We also had done research into the Russian Orthodox Church records and found the names of people who had been buried in that graveyard in the 1800s. Some of them had living descendants.”

Counceller says the repatriation process can begin a couple of ways.

“Sometimes we get notified by an organization or a museum or university that they're putting something into the federal register,” Counceller said. “Sometimes we get contacted by our local Tribes for assistance, and in some cases it's because they don't really know exactly how to go through that entire process. We also keep a sort of a running list of places that we know of that have ancestral remains from our region. And so we kind of just keep an eye on it in some cases in the past.”  

The Alutiiq Museum isn’t a Tribal organization. It’s Tribally run and Tribally led, -- but it doesn’t have the Tribal standing to directly negotiate repatriation claims -- unless they’re doing so on behalf of a Tribe.

But the museum does keep up-to-date on potential notices.

“As part of a project we're working on right now,” said Amanda Lancaster, the museum’s collections curator. “I've been looking through those notices and finding some that we weren't even aware of.” 

Repatriation claims in Alaska can be tricky. That’s because some Tribes recognize dual enrollment – meaning a person can belong to two Tribes at once – usually a local Tribe and a more umbrella Tribe. But not all Tribes recognize dual enrollment.

That’s where Sun’aq Tribe comes in handy, and makes it easier to negotiate claims.

When remains can’t be specifically pinned down to a particular community or village, then an umbrella Tribe like Sun’aq can initiate a claim for the region. The Tribe is also based in Kodiak along with the Alutiiq Museum.

The NAGPRA registry is available online and searchable by state or region or institution.

Shannon O’Loughlin is the executive director for the Association of American Indian Affairs. She says items can be categorized in a way that creates uncertainty of which Tribe or Tribes to reach out to.

“The thing about summaries and items that are cultural patrimony or sacred objects or other unassociated funerary objects, is it the institution, the way the law is written? One of my criticisms of the law is the way it's written is for summaries that the institution does not have to consult with Tribes to determine what is going to be in its summary,” O’Loughlin said. “That means before consultation, it's determining what it thinks are sacred objects, objects of cultural patrimony, and associated funerary objects.”

On the NAGPRA registry, the Harvard Peabody museum lists at least one instance in its collection of culturally unaffiliated remains – coming from the Aleutians West region.

In Alaska, remains are located at the Medical Examiner’s Office, the Museum of the North on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, and other locations.

But remains from Alaska are spread out from California to Connecticut.

NAGPRA and most U.S. laws don’t cover the remains that came from outside of what are now colonially imposed borders.

Nor do those laws cover remains and objects that were taken from the U.S. and moved internationally.

“The museums outside of the United States that may or may not have ancestral remains from our area are not subject to United States laws,” Alutiiq Museum’s April Counceller said.

The law also doesn’t require museums or universities to return items for repatriation in any specific way.

So remains of ancestors may be returned in a box – and in some cases, boxes separated into similar parts.

A community may get a box of skulls, a box of femurs, et cetera.

One example, Alutiiq Museum director April Counceller says, was during the Chirikof repatriation.

“When people get the remains back, they're not coming back in coffins. They're not coming back in the way that we are accustomed in the modern day to see our dead be treated,” Counceller said. “I think that helped the broader community that knew about the situation, that helped them to understand, you know, you wouldn't like to see your family member come back in individual cardboard boxes.”

And so communities try to give their Elders and ancestors rest in the most respectful way possible.

For Kodiak, the Alutiiq Museum worked with the city and local Tribes and Native corporations to create Ancestors Memorial Park.

Museum director Counceller says it’s less about internment, and more about an honoring place.

Some Native communities don’t allow practices to handle ancestral remains -- and so sometimes elect to allow a museum to store them in the meantime.

It’s complicated says Harvard professor Phil Deloria, who chairs the Peabody Museum NAGPRA Advisory Committee.

“There are certain things which are under control of the federal government, which are in our collections, and many things have been repatriated,” Deloria said. “Some human remains remain in our collection at the request of discretion of Tribes who have completed the process with us. And then there have been an interesting number of cultural objects, you know, in which there has been exchange.

Remember that totem pole that was taken during the Harriman Expedition of 1899 in Southeast Alaska, near what is now called Cape Fox.  

Almost 100 years after a Teikweidi totem pole from Southeast Alaska was removed, the Harvard Peabody Museum helped repatriate it.

The Cape Fox Corporation donated a cedar tree as a gesture of appreciation, and the museum commissioned Tlingit master carver Nathan Jackson to carve the tree into a pole – the Kaats' Xóots Kooteeya or Kaats' and Brown Bear totem pole s a symbol of the Saanya Kwaan Teikweidi clan and history -- but also the relationship between the Saanya Kwaan and the Harvard Peabody Museum.

“I take my students in to the museum and a lot of Native students, you know, it's an uneasy experience for those students,” Deloria said. “We stop at the Nathan Jackson pole, though, and talk quite a bit about what collaboration means and the ways in which can be really productive for everybody who's involved. But it feels to me like things have gone well with Alaska in the past and we look forward to doing more in the future.”

Repatriation hasn’t always been a collaborative process.

But as more universities and museums examine colonization’s dark history and its impact on Indigenous people, many make greater efforts to consult with Tribes – in an effort to bring ancestral remains home.

Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History director Kirk Johnson, left, participated in the 2017 reburial of remains excavated in 1931. The remains of 24 villagers were removed from the site of the now abandoned village of Kaskanak. Those ancestral remains were returned in 2017. (Photo by Avery Lill/KDLG)
  Into a digital future 

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act certainly has its flaws. But museums and Native cultural organizations look to the future of digital collections and repatriation.

The Alutiiq Museum, which is based in Kodiak, will begin to digitize its collection with the eventual goal of expanding and digitizing collections from other museums.

Museum collections curator Amanda Lancaster says they’re already using a database and have most of their object’s catalogued.

"We use a database called Collective Access, and they are designing. So we already have sort of the back end where we have all of our objects catalogs to some degree. And so “We'll be adding our ethnographic objects to this very specific part of the database. And then later, we'd like to add Alutiiq collections that are around the world, so there's some at the Alaska State Museum all the way to France and Finland and beyond. And so we'd like to just make all of these collections available to people to be able to look at in one central place."

The database would allow people to view the collections in one central place.

"I'd like to kind of see like a map that has little pins everywhere and you can just kind of go to the pen and look and see these elliptic collections."

Lancaster says that because some items are culturally significant, the museum can put part of that collection behind privacy firewalls – so that only Tribal members could access them.

“One thing that sort of I just wanted to mention because you touched on it, is one aspect of our database that I that we designed specifically in mind,” Lancaster said. “We can sort of set privacy settings on our database. So when we make things accessible, we don't have to make them accessible to the public at large. We can make them accessible maybe just to Tribes.”

In Juneau, Sealaska Heritage Institute began a similar process that studies physical objects through photographs, electromagnetic patterns and other ways.

The process called photogrammetry allows for three-dimensional documentation of cultural objects, such as carvings, which can be studied in-depth and remotely. The technology could potentially make older pieces held by museums available to artists around the world who might otherwise not have access to the work, SHI director Rosita Worl said.

"It's really time consuming and hopefully the technology is going to be kind of improve."

And it brings up similar questions the Alutiiq Museum brought up on what to make available and to whom. An example of something that might be held behind a privacy wall would be images of clan crests.

Worl says that Sealaska Heritage also does a lot of work to digitize its collection.

One thing Sealaska Heritage has also fought for were items that are sold at public auction – and sometimes on online auction houses and even eBay.

In one way, NAGPRA has inspired multiple pieces of legislation.

Worl says one piece of legislation she’s working on would stop the export of sacred objects overseas.

“And then another piece of legislation that we have in Congress or before Congress is a tax incentive act where … tax legislation wvould give additional benefits to the collectors for returning objects to."

Currently many collectors want to sell items and organizations like Sealaska Heritage may not be able to raise enough money to buy the item. And there’s nothing to incentivize the collector to donate the item at a so-called “loss.”

But the legislation would be able to give the collector more compensation for donating an item back to a Tribe or Tribal organization.

But in regards to the current laws on the books as they pertain to museums, Worl says she thinks museums are changing for the better.

“Some of these museums like Peabody Essex are trying to follow the social movement that we are seeing in the country, not everywhere, but certainly it is a social movement where equality and the rights of minorities and Indigenous people are being at least are saying they have rights. And so that's progress.” 

She also sees change in younger museum professionals.

“My colleagues are the old guys, and they are just totally opposed to repatriation and NAGPRA,” Worl said. “But I'm seeing the younger generation of museum professionals that are much more understanding and accepting of a Native American belief system.” 

Worl says she rewatched footage of a ceremony honoring the return of a 100-plus-year-old Chilkat blanket in 2017. And she wanted to share that video with other museums and historians.

“I think it really exemplified how we feel, how we see how we see things differently, how material objects can you have spirit.”

During that ceremony a Seattle couple returned the robe to Sealaska Heritage Institute. The exact origins of the blanket were difficult to determine, and Chilkat weavers planned to study the robe to see how it was made.

Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Irene Dundas and Michael Livingston, whose words and work inspired this story. Rashah McChesney and Claire Stremple helped edit this story for web and radio broadcast.