Alaska's U.S. senators press museums and universities to repatriate Indigenous remains
Apr. 30—WASHINGTON — Alaska Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan signed letters to five museums and universities urging them repatriate Indigenous remains in their collections.
The letters, signed by a bipartisan group of 13 senators, call on the University of California Berkeley; Harvard University; Illinois State Museum; Indiana University; and the Ohio History Connection to comply with the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act. The 1990 federal law mandates that museums receiving federal money must return human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony to their descendants or original community.
"Delayed repatriation is delayed justice for Native peoples," the letters said. "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."
The letters, sent last week, came after a recent investigation from ProPublica and NBC News revealing that institutions across the country hold over 110,000 Native American remains in their collections.
Murkowski said the letters seek to "elevate the issue" and inform the public about NAGPRA compliance.
She said she signed the letters "because it doesn't make any difference if you are a significant museum or university. If you have ancestral remains that have been part of a, quote, 'collection,' they are ancestral remains that need to be returned and not necessarily kept as someone's private collection."
Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and vice chairman Murkowski spearheaded the letters, which were signed by Sullivan and 10 other senators.
[Is the Metropolitan Museum of Art displaying objects that belong to Native American tribes?]
Sullivan said the letters put pressure on museums and universities that are "reluctant to comply with the law."
"Can you imagine somebody going to your ancestor's grave and taking their bones, digging up their bones and then when you go back saying, 'I'd like my great-great-grandfather's bones back,' and they're not being cooperative?" Sullivan said Tuesday. "I just find it to be something that should not be controversial."
The letters say that when NAGPRA passed in 1990, lawmakers expected repatriation to take five years, but three decades later, "a daunting amount of work remains."
"Experts reportedly estimate that it could take as many as 70 more years before NAGPRA's directive of expeditious repatriation is fulfilled," the letters say. "This is simply unacceptable."
Statements from the Ohio History Connection, which manages dozens of sites and museums in Ohio, as well as Indiana University, Illinois State Museum and UC Berkeley each said they received the senators' letter and are committed to repatriation.
"We are pleased the senators are giving more attention to NAGPRA," Ohio History Connection spokesman Neil Thompson said in its statement. "This work requires many resources and time commitments — for both institutions like ours and the federally recognized Tribes — to undertake repatriation on such a large scale, and we hope this conversation shines a light on that issue."
Harvard University did not respond to a request for comment.
The letters ask the five institutions for an update on the NAGPRA process, including how they determine if "a relationship of shared group identity that may be reasonably traced" and how they use Native traditional knowledge to determine relationships between tribes and remains.
Alaska Native remains are also currently held in Alaska institutions, including the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Scott Shirar, the museum's archaeology collection manager, said the museum has about 300 individuals' remains and about a dozen open repatriation cases.
Shirar said NAGPRA efforts happen in collaboration with tribal representatives and require an initial claim from an entity seeking repatriation. Once the process begins, it can take "a couple of years, at minimum," according to Shirar.
"Whenever we get a letter or call from a tribal representative that wants to consult, we make that a priority and try to move forward on the process as quickly as we can," he said.
Shirar added that "funding is always an issue" and that having staff dedicated to working on NAGRPA could expedite repatriation efforts.
"Some funding at the state level to get folks that are just working on NAGPRA 100 percent of the time I think would be awesome and will probably really help move the process forward and speed it up," Shirar said.
Shirar said he appreciated the senators' letters and thinks they put an important spotlight on NAGPRA.
"I think any pressure that they can put on these institutions and their role as our senators and representatives is great," Shirar said. "Not only on those institutions in the Lower 48, but maybe to gain momentum and get international institutions, put pressure on them to send things back, as well."