The William F. Winter Archives and History Building of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (photo by Tom Beck; courtesy the Mississippi Department of Archives and History)

The colonization of the United States and its formation as an independent nation is a history drowning in the blood of the land’s original occupants. Though the harms are irrevocable, new efforts are being made to undo the persisting sense of entitlement concerning appropriating Indigenous lands, traditions, and bodies — both living and dead. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History recently finalized the release of 403 sets of Native American remains, as well as 83 lots of funerary items, returning them to the Chickasaw Nation in March of this year. 

“This repatriation is a huge milestone for our institution and our tribal partners,” Katie Blount, MDAH director, told the Clarion Ledger. “We are committed to the repatriation of human remains and cultural objects in the department’s archaeological collections.”

The objects, which constitute the largest return of stolen Native American antiquities in Mississippi’s history, were removed from the region of Mississippi north of the Yazoo and Yalobusha rivers. The majority of these remains were disinterred from the Mississippi Delta and range from 750 to 1,800 years old, making them the historic purview of the Chickasaw Nation, who recently welcomed their ancestors home.

“We see the repatriation process as an act of love,” explained Amber Hood, director of Historic Preservation and Repatriation for the Chickasaw Nation, as quoted in the Associated Press. “These are our grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, and cousins from long ago.”

The action of returning grave-robbed Native Americans and their burial possessions from state archives to their rightful place is based on a federal law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). This legislation mandates that institutions that receive federal funding, including museums and schools, return human remains, funerary objects, and other sacred items to their Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian descendants. Though passed more than 30 years ago, NAGPRA is still in a frustratingly slow rollout.

However, strides have been made this week, as MDAH launched a new NAGPRA website that makes its efforts, tribal partners, and processes more transparent. It will also feature internship opportunities, Tribal stories, collections updates, and repatriation progress reports. Meg Cook, the MDAH’s director of archaeology, said repatriations of remains are now the main priority for the state’s archaeology collection, and an ethical responsibility in alignment with its mission of preserving Mississippi’s history.

“Our goal is to engage the public in NAGPRA and to provide information about our collections in a way that hasn’t been done before,” said Cook in an MDAH press release. “The most important part is remembering that these remains are people, and their families want to see that they are reburied.”

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....