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Colonization's dark history puts undue burden on Tribes seeking repatriation of remains, objects

May 18, 2021

In 2017, boxes of the Chirikof remains were transported  to the Kodiak state airportin various boxes. While the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires some museums and universities to work with Tribes to repatriate remains, the law does require the return of the remains in any particular way. (Photo by Kayla Desroches/KMXT)

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.

(Editor's note: This story is the second part of a three-part series. You can read the full series and listen to an extended podcast on repatriation at knba.org.)

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 Harvard 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.

In February 2017, 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)

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.” 

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.