(BIVN) – On Thursday, U.S. Senator Brian Schatz (D, Hawaiʻi) took to the Senate floor in order to demand institutions comply the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.
Sen. Schatz, the Chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said that colleges and museums who haven’t returned ancestral remains to native peoples must “stop avoiding their responsibilities” under NAGPRA.
“There are still more than 70 other institutions holding almost 58,000 ancestral remains,” said Sen. Schatz. “And that’s not counting the additional hundreds of thousands of cultural items in their collections. These are supposedly liberal institutions who have no problem parroting whatever progressive expression is in vogue. And yet at the same time, they continue a colonial project against the explicit and repeated wishes of Native people. If you say you’re for equal justice, for doing right by people of all backgrounds, then act like it.”
In recent years, there have been stories documenting the return of iwi kūpuna that were taken from burial caves in Hawaiʻi. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs has led the effort in many of these successful cases, some involving international institutions.
In February 2022, the Indian Affairs Committee held an oversight hearing on NAGPRA, which included testimony from OHA Board Chair Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey.
Last April, Schatz led a bipartisan group of senators, urging the University of California, Berkeley, Harvard University, Illinois State Museum, Indiana University, and the Ohio History Connection to comply with NAGPRA. The move followed media reports that some federally funded universities have failed to return Native American cultural items and ancestral remains, as per the 1990 law.
“34 years later, it’s nowhere near close to being done,” said Schatz from the Senate floor. “In fact, experts recently estimated that at the current rate, it may take up to 70 years to complete the process.”
“Return these remains and items to the Native people they belonged to all along,” Schatz said.
Here is the full text from the floor speech by Senator Schatz:
For centuries, Native people had everything stolen from them – their lands, their water, their languages, and even their children. It wasn’t that long ago that it was the official policy of the United States government to terminate the existence of tribes and forcibly assimilate their citizens. And a big part of that unrelenting, inhumane policy was that the remains of Native ancestors and culturally significant items were also taken from them. Not with permission, but by force. Not discovered, but stolen. On battlefields and in cemeteries, under the cover of darkness or the guise of academic research.
Think about that. The U.S. government literally stole people’s bones. Soldiers and agents overturned graves and took whatever they could find. And these weren’t isolated incidents – they happened all across the country. In my home state of Hawai‘i, the remains of Native Hawaiians – or iwi kūpuna as they’re called – were routinely pillaged without any regard for the sanctity of the burials or Native Hawaiian culture.
And all of it was brought to some of the most venerable institutions – at home and abroad — to be studied like biological specimens…displayed in museum exhibits as if they’re paintings on loan…or squirreled away in a professor’s office closet, never to be seen again.
The theft of hundreds of thousands of remains and items over generations was unconscionable in and of itself. But the legacy of that cruelty continues to this day because these museums and universities continue to hold onto these sacred items in violation of everything that is right and moral – and importantly, in violation of federal law.
To remedy this injustice, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, in 1990. It required museums and universities to quickly return the remains and items they were holding that belonged to Native Hawaiians, Alaska Natives, and American Indians.
And at the time, the Congressional Budget Office anticipated that it would take about 5 years to complete the process of repatriation. But 34 years later, it’s nowhere near close to being done. In fact, experts recently estimated that at the current rate, it may take up to 70 years to complete the process.
Why? Because these institutions – all otherwise well-respected and sought-after – have done everything in their power to obstruct and obfuscate when confronted about their collections. They act as if it’s some sort of impossible task, either administratively or in determining the lineage or provenance of an item. They purposely miscategorize items as quote-unqoute “culturally unidentifiable.”
They engage with Native communities as little as possible. They quote-unquote “borrow” collections from one another so they can never actually be held responsible for them. And maybe the most outrageous of all the excuses, they claim tribes and Native groups lack the ability to take care of their own things. Lack the ability to take care of their own things.
It smells of the worst kind of colonialism with a thin veneer of progressive verbiage. University provosts and presidents can do all the land acknowledgements they want. They can post lengthy statements about equity on their websites and champion any number of progressive causes.
But all of that rings pretty darn hollow if they’re at the same time clinging onto vast collections of stolen items because of a perverse, patronizing sense of ownership.
This is in no way morally ambiguous. There’s nothing to ponder here. The fact is: these items do not belong in museums and universities or to science and academia. They belong to the Native people from which they came.
Which is why the Committee on Indian Affairs, which I chair, held an oversight hearing on this issue almost two years ago and demanded explanations from the foremost offenders about their delays in repatriating these items. They’re located all over the country: Ohio History Connection; the Illinois State Museum; Harvard University; the University of California, Berkeley; and Indiana University. Together, these 5 institutions still hold at least 30,000 Native ancestral remains. 30,000.
These institutions have been responsive and many have accelerated their repatriation efforts since. Earlier this month, Harvard, which has the third largest collection of these items in the country, pledged to cover travel expenses for Native leaders to facilitate the repatriation process. Other museums, including the American Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum, have also recently announced steps to finally comply with NAGPRA.
And yet, there are still more than 70 other institutions holding almost 58,000 ancestral remains. And that’s not counting the additional hundreds of thousands of cultural items in their collections. These museums and universities are everywhere:
The University of Tennessee, Knoxville
The University of Kentucky
The University of Alabama
The University of Arizona
The University of Florida
The University of Missouri, Columbia
The University of Oklahoma
The Center for American Archaeology in Illinois
The University of Texas at Austin
The Milwaukee Public Museum
And so on. That’s just a small sample – and I will enter the full list into the record.
But the point is: this work is far from over. These are supposedly liberal institutions who have no problem parroting whatever progressive expression is in vogue. And yet at the same time, they continue a colonial project against the explicit and repeated wishes of Native people. If you say you’re for equal justice…for doing right by people of all backgrounds…then act like it. Return these remains and items to the Native people they belonged to all along.
Some of the challenges when it comes to addressing past injustices in American history can seem so big as to be totally overwhelming. Where do you start? This is not one of them. Returning these items matters, and the good news is, it’s imminently doable. But doable only if we collectively agree that getting this right is a necessary condition for justice to be restored.
Doing this alone will not right past wrongs or somehow erase a long and brutal history of injustice. Of course it won’t. Native people still need money for water and electricity. They still need resources for healthcare. And as ever, they still need the unimpeded right to self-determination.
But the least we can do – the least we can do – is enable them to tell their own stories. And to define themselves, for themselves, and to the rest of the world. Give the items back. Comply with federal law. Hurry. Devote resources to this. Demonstrate in three dimensions that you care about the values that you espouse.