Stolen Land and Stolen Bodies: Navigating the Repatriation Debate of Native Remains

Native Americans have been treated with a lack of human dignity since the beginning of colonial settlement in the United States. They were considered primitive people of the present but through acts of genocide became the “noble savages” of the past. Today many Native American groups are still fighting for federal recognition. At the center of the debate around improper treatment of Native Americans is the repatriation and reburial of ancestral remains. This issue began hundreds of years ago with white settlers, and the effects of stolen native bodies are still being felt today. The conversation about the repatriation of remains also involves how to commemorate and recognize the difficult history between the United States government and Native Americans. Oftentimes this commemoration situates Native Americans solely in the past, instead of acknowledging their continued presence in the present. By removing native bodies from their ancestral burial sites, the United States continues to erase native existence.

The Debate over Ownership

The scientific approach to handling native remains strips the humanity and history of the body by removing it from a historical narrative. In his article “Bones of Contention: The Repatriation of Native American Humans Remains,” Andrew Gulliford provides a comprehensive history of the repatriation debate. The removal of Native American bodies from their original burial sites for “scientific” research began in the nineteenth century. During battles, white settlers would take Native American bodies from their fresh graves. As colonizers expanded their communities, they forced Native Americans off of their ancestral grounds. Since white settlers thought of Native Americans as “savages,” there was no societal demand to treat their remains with respect. In the nineteenth century, academics considered Native Americans as people of the past and people who could not be civilized. Hubert Howe, a historian from the nineteenth century wrote, “the savages were in the way; the miners and the settlers were arrogant and impatient; there were no missionaries or others present with even the poor pretense of soul-saving or civilizing.” Social Darwinism was the foundation for any scientific research conducted on native remains. White scientists studied the bones to prove that Native Americans were less evolved than their white counterparts.

Exhibit at the Maryhill Museum in Washington.

Anthropologists today still prioritize scientific research over the cultural practices of Native American tribes. In his article “Dance of the Dead: A Legal Tango for Control of Native American Skeletal Remains,” John E. Peterson II discusses the legal debacle between government institutions and Native American groups for control over ancestral remains. Peterson highlights the irony of the relationship between anthropologists and Native American tribes. He states, “anthropologists, in general, have probably done more work to preserve a record of Native American cultures than any other entity in American society.” Accessibility to these artifacts presents a major problem for many Native Americans. Their culture is highly regarded within the walls of a museum but outside of the museum, it is not discussed. Native American remains are some of the best-preserved and best-studied artifacts in museums. Through this study, their original spiritual being is often forgotten about. Once they become objects of research, it becomes hard to see them as anything other than that: “Ancient skeletal remains are ‘resources’ for scientists, but they are relatives for living tribal peoples.” Most archeologists are against returning their objects of study to their proper homes because they are worried about their decay. This tension is at the heart of the repatriation debate, as the remains mean different things to each side.

A Change in Protocol Marks the Beginning of Repatriation

While many institutions and tribes alike want to facilitate a scenario where repatriation is possible, it is not a smooth process. The conversation about repatriation in the public sphere began with the passing of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990. NAGPRA requires institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American “cultural items” to descendants of the group they were originally taken from. Through NAGPRA, a formal process for repatriation was established. It also acknowledges the present-day existence of Native American tribes. One difficult part of the process of repatriating bones to specific tribes is finding their historical ancestry. In an effort to slow down the process, institutions cite the fact that it is hard to prove that certain human remains belong to certain present-day tribes. Some tribal members are wary of returning bones to their land. In the case that the remains were misidentified, they could be burying their enemy on what they consider to be sacred soil. When attempting to return these remains, institutions are forced to decide which tribe members to correspond with. For example, there are multiple Gabrielino/Tongva bands, each subdivision claiming to be the “real” Tongva. There is no consensus among federally recognized tribes on the issue of repatriation.

The Nuance of Commemoration

The removal of native remains is the removal of agency in creating a historical narrative from Native American communities. It is important to note that ancestral remains are physical parts of Native American history. Many museums, which are largely white institutions, house Native American remains and use them to construct a specific narrative. These institutions play a major role in crafting the narrative about Native Americans. Since many human remains are included in exhibits that discuss Native Americans, museums often present a history where Native Americans no longer exist today. Of course, this is an inaccurate narrative, but most members of the United States population do not know how many lively Native American communities exist today. The representation of Native Americans today is that they were a people of the past, and their time in the United States is over. This narrative is perpetuated with ease as reservations are out of sight of most major cities. The average American citizen does not think of how their existence affects the lives of Native Americans and how the United States is on stolen land. The simple narrative of friendship and cooperation between colonists and Native Americans is easy to believe, because Americans are not forced to confront the realities of their colonization of land that was not theirs. Museums have the potential to help Native Americans rediscover once lost artifacts to revitalize their cultural identity today.

With increasing urban development, Native American ancestral lands are being transformed during new construction projects. During the initial process, native remains and/or cultural artifacts are often found. This is the case on the campus of Loyola Marymount University. Two Gabrielino/Tongva villages, including cultural artifacts, were uncovered during the construction of the Leavey Campus. A number of years later, human remains were uncovered at Playa Vista. To honor that Tongva history, a Memorial Planning committee was created and eventually a memorial was built. In addition, a small exhibit of the artifacts is on display in one of the academic buildings.

This is not an uncommon way to deal with the discovery of native remains. Archeologists, representatives of Native American groups, and members of the community are forced to reckon with the consequences of finding already buried cultural artifacts and human remains. This is a demonstration of shared authority, all members of the affected parties working together to create something meaningful for all of them (though before the passage of NAGPRA, there was often a reluctance to initiate these interactions of shared authority). Memorials are often capture the community’s attention for some time when first built, but then the community moves on. This is the case at LMU, where there has been a general lack of continued commemoration or acknowledgment that the university sits on unceded land. In addition, at the site of the memorial, there are plaques that describe how the Tongva once lived, which paints them as primitive and powerless to Europeans. The memorial to the Gabrielino/Tongva on Loyola Marymount’s campus thus promotes the erasure of native groups from the present.

Tongva Memorial at Loyola Marymount University.

Using the Past to Change the Present

The key to changing the problematic representation of Native Americans is changing the historical narrative that exists about the founding of the United States. The reality of United States history is not taught in schools. In his book An American Genocide, Benjamin Madley claims that the annihilation of Native Americans in the United States was an act of genocide. State and federal officials, along with the public, were aware of the massacres of Native Americans that were happening. In general, however, Native American suffering is only briefly recognized when it is convenient for the colonizers. This acknowledgment never lasts long, though a physical representation is usually left behind in the form of a statue of sorts.

The United States began by stealing from other people. White settlers stole land, crops, and eventually remains. Scientists of the nineteenth century aimed to study native bodies in an effort to show that the white population was more evolved. There was a systematic killing of Native Americans that ensued and countless lives were lost to disease and war. Despite all of this, there is a lively Native American community in the United States. Native Americans fought back against the oppression of the past and are continuing to do so today. Removing native remains from their ancestral burial grounds and into museums creates a dangerous narrative of erasure. Institutions need to listen more to native voices and strive to tell an accurate version of native history.  

Written by Lindsay McConnell, English and History, LMU 2021.

For Further Reading:

Gulliford, Andrew. “Bones of Contention: The Repatriation of Native American Human   Remains.” The Public Historian 18, no. 4 (1996): 119-43. doi:10.2307/3379790.

Madley, Benjamin. An American Genocide. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.

Peterson, John E. “Dance of the Dead: A Legal Tango for Control of Native American Skeletal    Remains.” American Indian Law Review 15, no. 1 (1990): 115-50. doi:10.2307/20068668.

United States House Code. Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Passed on  November 16, 1990.