New federal rules would hit museums 'on the head,' speed up return of lost or stolen Native remains
The remains of about 350 Native people, many who were dug up from their graves in New England, are still on museum shelves, according to a government database.
That’s despite a more than 30-year-old federal law that was designed to return them to their communities. Proposed changes to regulations would require museums to speed up the process.
In the late 1800s and in the 1900s, universities and museums sponsored archaeological digs where they excavated the remains of Native people. Amateur collectors would also dig up remains and sometimes donate them to a school, library or museum. At times, people unearthed remains when they plowed a field, excavated a cellar or constructed a road.
Shannon O’Loughlin of the Association on American Indian Affairs said this was a violation of human rights.
"Institutions and collectors and others have, throughout history, removed Native bodies from their places of rest without any consent or disclosure to the people’s relatives who were affected by this practice," O’Loughlin said.
There is a federal law that addresses this. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, outlines a process for museums to return Native ancestors to tribes.
But the process has moved slowly. Today, more than 100,000 ancestors are still stored in museums. Melanie O’Brien, who manages NAGPRA for the federal government, said most of those remains were given the same label by museums in the 1990s.
“Nearly all of them are 'culturally unidentifiable,'” O'Brien said.
But now, proposed rules would eliminate that label. O’Brien said that’s in part because many tribes find the term offensive.
"As they do believe that those ancestors have a cultural identity, and they know who they are and they would like to have them repatriated. The goal of the revised regulations is to allow tribes to make those claims for their ancestors and to repatriate them," O'Brien said.
If approved, O’Loughlin said the proposed regulations would underscore something that’s already in the law — using the geographic location of where the remains came from to make a connection between the ancestor and a modern-day tribe.
"So that way museums are basically hit on the head with the requirement that geography is enough to repatriate and affiliate," O'Loughlin said.
This would be true even if a museum has only vague information of where the remains came from, such as just the county or the state.
'They are segregated in a separated place'
Jessie Cohen, repatriation coordinator at the Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven, recently led the way through a secure door to a huge storage facility.
"We have 17 or 18 different types of storage within this space. It’s about 17,000 square feet," she said.
Cohen cranked open movable aisles holding shelves and drawers storing the museum’s anthropology collection, including some objects that fall under NAGPRA.
"We do have a segregated space for sacred objects in here," she said. "Sacred and ceremonial is tucked away and not accessed. It’s restricted to tribes in official capacities."
Cohen said human remains are not in this space.
"They are segregated in a separate space. Access is restricted to tribes and staff," she said.
Yale has repatriated the remains of about 500 Native people. About 600 are still in the museum.
According to the NAGPRA database, the remains of about 60 Native people dug up in western and central Massachusetts are now scattered across three states in seven museums: the Worcester Historical Museum, Harvard's Peabody Museum and Warren Anatomical Museum, American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Berkshire Museum, Springfield Science Museum and Yale Peabody Museum.
Yale Peabody has the remains of seven Native people from Franklin County, Massachusetts.
"They came into our collection, the Peabody’s collection, in three separate collecting events," Cohen said.
According to an older government database, four came from a "burial ground" at Turners Falls and were donated in 1920. Another two, donated in 1915 by the same collector, came from a "Native American cemetery" in Turners Falls and a seventh set of remains is identified only as coming from Franklin County.
"Those kinds of collector’s notes, like 'burial ground' or 'cemetery' are helpful, but we also often have to just take [them] with a grain of salt because we don’t know how authentic they were being," she said.
A burial ground in Franklin County
The place now called Turners Falls was named for Captain William Turner who led an attack in nearby Gill in 1676 that massacred hundreds of Native people. But tribes had another name that describes the falling water that was so loud it could be heard miles away.
"Peskeompskut," David Brule said. "Peske in the Algonquian language means thunder. Omps is a rock and skut is a place."
Brule leads a research project on the massacre, funded by the National Park Service.
Brule grew up in Turners Falls and is a member of the Nehantic Tribal Council. He is also the president of the Nolumbeka Project, a Native advocacy nonprofit.
Asked if he knows of any burial grounds where the ancestors in Yale Peabody might have come from, Brule heads to a 41-acre site just over the river in Greenfield. It’s called Wissatinnewag, the shining hill, named for the glistening mist that rose from the falls.
Brule said before the massacre, for more than 10,000 years, there was a Pocumtuck village on the hill.
Brule — standing in an area below the hill — said, "Because this is slightly farther away from the village and it's well-drained soils, this was the burial ground. There would have been burials right here."
But for years, at least from the 1940s into the 1990s, it was not a place to rest in peace. Sand was excavated for construction projects.
“Remains were being pulled out daily. Skulls, bones, you name it. And the non-sand material was taken out," Brule said, "and dumped in a swamp.”
The Nolumbeka Project now owns Wissatinnewag.
Brule said he doesn’t know whether the ancestors at Yale were removed from here or another burial ground in the area. But he does know which tribes were here. He said the Pocumtuck, Abenaki and Nipmuc lived near the falls year-round.
Others made camp in the spring, when salmon migrated upriver.
"Pennicook from northern New England came in. The Nonatuck, Norwottuck, Agawam. All those people came here. In addition, people from the coast, especially the Wampanoag and the Narragansett," he said.
Museums, tribes prepare for new rules
Today’s tribes from the region are likely to be invited by the Yale Peabody Museum to consult on the repatriation of ancestors from Franklin County, said Jessie Cohen.
"For our Massachusetts ancestors still in the collection, I'm going to reach out to Massachusetts federally recognized tribes, potentially un-federally recognized tribes, and go from there," she said.
The proposed regulations would give Yale Peabody and other museums a strict deadline: two and half years to complete the process. Federal officials expect the rules will go into effect before the end of the year.
And even before the rules are approved Yale Peabody is tripling its current repatriation staff of one.
Tribes are also understaffed. In addition to consulting with museums, tribal communities carry the burden of finding new burial places, along with the physical and emotional work of reburying their ancestors.