Representative of the American Indian Community House Rick Chavolla during a protest at the Brooklyn Museum in 2018 (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Multiple museums in New York and New Jersey, including the Newark Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, hold the remains of Native Americans in their collections, according to a new investigation by ProPublica done in partnership with NBC News. “The Repatriation Project,” launched last week, features a searchable database with logs of over 100,000 Native American remains spread across the collections of US cultural institutions — including art museums, universities, and government agencies — that still possess remains decades after the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed in 1990.

It’s been over 30 years since federally funded institutions across the nation were instructed to assess their collections and return Native American remains to their lineal descendants or respective populations. But according to ProPublica, many of them have taken advantage of certain loopholes within the NAGPRA that enable them to hold on to remains that have been deemed “culturally unidentifiable.” Frustrations within Indigenous communities continue to mount as the United States Department of the Interior, which is responsible for ecological conservation and upholding federal trust responsibilities to Indigenous populations, works toward updating the terms of the NAGPRA to further streamline and expedite the repatriation process.

According to the data gathered by ProPublica, which is self-reported by institutions, the New York State Museum in the state capital of Albany possesses over 1,200 sets of Native American remains and over 9,000 associated funerary objects in its collection. While the museum has labeled 42% of the remains and 74% of the objects as available for return, the Times Union reported last February that the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (most commonly known as the Iroquois Confederacy) has made “too many [consultation] requests to count” for the remaining ancestors and objects that have been tagged culturally unidentifiable.

A spokesperson for the New York State Museum told Hyperallergic that it is currently “engaged with federally recognized tribes in New York State, where the vast majority of our holdings originate, to repatriate all Native American human remains and cultural items subject to NAGPRA.”

“We are actively reviewing all culturally unidentifiable human remains and recently made another 170 individuals ‘available for return’ through the NAGPRA process,” the spokesperson continued, citing two notices published in the Federal Register last December.

The Brooklyn Museum also reported possessing four sets of Native American remains including that of an Indigenous child from the Canyon del Muerto in Apache County, Arizona. A spokesperson for the museum told Hyperallergic that the remains of the mummified child were repatriated to the Navajo Nation last December for reburial at Canyon de Chelly. With regards to the other sets of remains, the representative said that its inventory, published in the early 1990s, “is no longer accurate” and that some remains identified as potentially human have since been “deemed to be animal remains.”

“The Brooklyn Museum currently has at least two culturally unidentified, possible Native American remains in its possession. We are working on generating additional documentation to allow for repatriation requests via NAGPRA and have included these remains in relevant consultations with Native communities,” the Brooklyn Museum spokesperson said.

Last year, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum declared three sets of Native American remains as available for return in its inventory completion notice in the Federal Register. The three skulls were donated by Theodore Kazimiroff, the official Bronx County historian from 1953 to 1980 and a co-founder of the Bronx Historical Society. According to the museum, the skulls were removed from the Bronx County in the early-to-mid-20th century based on their “Southern New York” labels coupled with Kazimiroff’s multiple excavation projects in the area. The notice cites that Kazimiroff excavated over 45,000 objects within New York City limits, with the historian claiming that a vast majority were Native American. The Brooklyn Children’s Museum did not provide further comment.

ProPublica also found that the Newark Museum of Art in Newark, New Jersey, possessed one set of Native American remains that has not yet been made available for return. The report specifies that the unidentified remains were taken from New Jersey. The Newark Museum of Art has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in Manhattan holds the largest number of Native American remains in the entire state, per the new database. With over 3,500 sets of remains in their collection, the AMNH has made a little over 1,600 individuals available for return. ProPublica claims that the museum has failed to repatriate some remains back to the Southwest region from which they were taken as they were too old to culturally identify, and that the museum commissioned a series of excavations in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon in the late 1890s and early 1900s, looting Native artifacts that are still a part of the museum’s prized collection. AMNH has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s requests for comment and reportedly declined to comment for ProPublica‘s story. A statement on its website states that the museum has completed 47 repatriations resulting in the transfer of more than 970 sets of Native American human remains and 2,280 cultural items.

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Rhea Nayyar

Rhea Nayyar (she/her) is a New York-based teaching artist who is passionate about elevating minority perspectives within the academic and editorial spheres of the art world. Rhea received her BFA in Visual...

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