Federally Funded Research on Native Remains Has Stymied Repatriation, Report Says

A new report by ProPublica reveals how government-funded research grants enabled institutions that have Native remains in their collections to delay obligatory repatriation efforts under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

Though two of her National Science Federation-funded projects involved collecting and destroying portions of Native remains, University of Utah professor Joan Brenner Coltrain initially believed that her work would help facilitate the repatriation of said remains in accordance with NAGPRA by identifying descendants. However, this work reportedly set an incentive for museums and universities to avoid repatriating remains from their collections, ProPublica‘s report claims.

In 2003, Brenner Coltrain began conducting research on Indigenous remains from the American Southwest held in the Basketmakers Collection at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology as well as Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The research was supported by grant money administered by the National Science Federation. The professor sought to identify the agriculture and diet patterns as well as the approximate years of life of multiple sets of remains excavated from sacred burials at the Chaco Canyon settlements of New Mexico, Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, and an ancient cliffside village in Colorado. She and her research team harvested and analyzed collagen and mitochondrial DNA from bits of bone taken from the remains, destroying them in the process to identify genetic information.

In her write-up, Brenner Coltrain acknowledged that several Native populations had issued repatriation requests to the Peabody Museum, noting that to “equitably repatriate this collection is contingent upon the genetic relationships and temporal framework under study.”

However, ProPublica reported that Brenner Coltrain’s research failed to yield repatriations from the Peabody Museum and the AMNH and instead inspired other researchers to begin probing Native remains in institutional collections, often without informed consent from Indigenous descendants and in direct violation of their funerary customs.

Protesters in front of the American Museum of Natural History cover the since-removed Roosevelt statue during an Anti-Columbus Day tour in October 2016 (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

The report highlights several other research projects conducted on Native remains without informing or obtaining consent from their populations of origin, noting that many researchers intentionally avoided connecting with Tribal representatives out of concern for their research being derailed by ownership debacles.

“There’s this perverse sense of ownership, that ‘these are our samples.’ And ‘you know, we’re protecting it for the good of research,’” Navajo Nation citizen and Arizona State University assistant professor Krystal Tsosie told ProPublica.

Under its original regulations, NAGPRA required all institutions holding Native remains to inventory their collections, consult Native populations and lineal descendants with the inventory findings, process any repatriation requests, and provide public notice of repatriation or transfer of remains. However, a major loophole in the 1990 act allowed institutions to declare remains “culturally unidentifiable,” resulting in over 100,000 sets of Native remains that have not been made available for repatriation requests to the dismay of Tribal representatives across the continent. While NAGPRA was meant to re-humanize Native remains looted from their burial sites and afford their descendants the opportunity to lay them to rest, there were no consequences for institutional failure to meet the regulations and it fell on Indigenous groups and communities to prove their relations to the “culturally unidentifiable” remains.

While AMNH still holds over 3,500 sets of remains (53% of which have not been made available for return) and the Peabody Museum holds over 10,000 sets (with 62% not made available for return), both institutions have halted scientific research from being conducted on the remains without explicit Tribal permission. Hyperallergic has contacted both AMNH and the Peabody Museum for comment on ProPublica‘s findings.

As of last October, NAGPRA’s repatriation guidelines are under revision to remove the onus from Native populations to prove their relations. Some of the proposed guidelines pending approval include appointing geographic connection as grounds for “affiliation” in repatriation requests, deferring to Native customs and traditions when handling remains or cultural objects, and removing the term “culturally unidentifiable” entirely from inventory classification reports and instead integrating geographic origin.

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