Protesters in front of the American Museum of Natural History covering a since-removed Roosevelt statue (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

A new database by ProPublica charts which United States institutions have yet to repatriate the remains of more than 110,000 Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Natives’ ancestors, reflecting a “legacy of looting and the displacement of Native Americans during North America’s violent colonization.”

The Repatriation Project investigates long-term delays between the 1990 passing of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) — which mandated proper treatment and return from federally funded institutions — and the legal loopholes that may have been manipulated to avoid complying with the law. A series of reports, charts, and interactive maps published on Wednesday, January 11 detail the locations of ancestral remains and sacred objects logged by the Department of the Interior, some of which are reportedly held at cultural and academic institutions. ProPublica says New York’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) has the remains of at least 1,898 Native Americans, and Harvard University has the remains of at least 6,165 Native Americans.

A museum-specific report by ProPublica notes that US government and military officials “harvested the dead from battlefields and massacre sites” in the 1880s during westward expansion, while museums looted from Indigenous gravesites to develop their archaeology and anthropology programs. A map detailing the geographic origins of these remains shows heavy concentrations around the area east of the Mississippi River — where tribal nations were forcibly removed in the 19th century — and southern California, where remains are held by the state’s flagship universities.

Neither AMNH nor Harvard has replied to Hyperallergic‘s request for comment. On its website, AMNH states that as of last July, it has completed 47 repatriations resulting in the transfer of more than 970 sets of Native American human remains and 2,280 cultural items. Last September, Harvard University pledged to return the remains of Native Americans as well as at least 19 people who were likely enslaved.

ProPublica researchers color-coded peaks in each region of the map to correlate remains per county, and users can search per state to reveal the number each institution has not made available for return. While just 10 museums and universities hold nearly half of all unavailable remains, the database claims that the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) holds the largest amount at 9,058, followed closely by Illinois State Museum at 7,590. Additionally, researchers claim that Harvard’s Peabody Museum holds at least 6,100 remains not made available for return, while the Interior Department itself maintains an additional 2,970.

ProPublica researchers color-coded peaks in each region of the map to correlate remains per county. (screenshot Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic with permission)

In an email sent to Hyperallergic, a UCB spokesperson confirmed ProPublica’s findings and noted an additional 13,000 associated funerary and non-funerary objects, as well as more than 200,000 potentially sacred objects under NAGPRA, citing their efforts to match the pace and schedule deemed acceptable.

“The campus believes that the best way for it to address past wrongs is to acknowledge that the policies and practices of the past were wrong and focus on the implementation of new policies and practices, which are supported by an entirely new ethos emanating from the campus’s most senior leadership,” the spokesperson said. “It is our intention that control of all of our campus NAGPRA-eligible holdings will be transferred to tribes, including ancestral remains, and with our Implementation Plan set to be completed this year, this can be accomplished in the next 10 years.”

A Frequently Asked Questions page expands on ProPublica’s process over the last two years, including their May 2022 invitation for tribal leaders, preservation officers, and museum workers to provide feedback. They note that 600 Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian tribal nations and organizations are federally recognized, yet hundreds of tribes without recognition further complicate the scope of unreturned ancestors.

For the research team — which includes ProPublica reporters Mary Hudetz (who is Apsaalooke/Crow) and Logan Jaffe, app developer Ash Ngu, and NBC reporter Graham Lee Brewer — this ongoing disparity points to individualized priorities and finances, as well as long-term bureaucratic disagreements over proper treatment.

“Many say the procedures laid out in the law are confusing, laborious, and contain loopholes,” the research team said in an email to Hyperallergic. “Almost everyone says there’s not enough funding to support the work of consultation and repatriation. Some bring up lack of enforcement. But also crucially, each institution has had their own staff, which has had their own divergent opinions on how to follow both the letter and spirit of the law.”

On the database page, researchers also allege that many museums have been able to hold on to Native remains and objects if they deem them “culturally unidentifiable.” Tribal representatives have long criticized this clause for appealing to institutional discretion, particularly given the long history of disrespectful preservation practices. Moreover, the research reveals that within the 609 institutions reporting remains on their premises, only 52% of ancestral remains have been made available for repatriation. 

“Most of these institutions spent years after the law’s passage prioritizing scientific interest in the skeletal remains and objects above the human rights of tribes,” the research team wrote in its report. “Institutions also maintained an unwillingness or inability to bear the costs of taking inventory and fully consulting with tribes.”

At the time of NAGPRA’s passing, Congress deemed it a landmark human rights legislation. Despite decades of tribal advocacy, however, the act has remained seriously flawed, leading critics to describe it as a “facade for museums, galleries, and collectors to continue acquiring and exhibiting Indigenous American cultural heritage.” ProPublica notes that these statistics are estimates that may continue to grow over time and invites users to provide feedback as they continue the project.

“Institutions that still have the remains of Native Americans are located all across the country,” the researchers told Hyperallergic. “Your town’s historical society might have some. Or the nearby state university. Or the natural history museum you take your kids to. The hope with the interactive database is to both make this issue more accessible and tangible to the broader public and act as a resource for those working on repatriation.”

Billie Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.