Tribes say law requiring return of remains, relics, hasn’t met promise

By Kristen Hwang, Cronkite News

WASHINGTON – Manley Begay Jr. stood surrounded by boxes “stacked to the ceiling” that were filled with the remains of more than 1,000 Native Americans, when one label caught his eye.

Canyon Del Muerte.

It was where Begay’s family took their livestock to winter on the Navajo Nation. But here, at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University more than two decades ago, it was the label on a box of human remains.

“It’s as though you’re experiencing the death of a loved one right before your eyes again and again and again,” said Begay, now a professor at Northern Arizona University.

Back then, he was a graduate student at Harvard and part of the museum’s repatriation committee, formed in response to a new law – the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

He and others were optimistic that the law would help tribes regain the sacred items and estimated 180,000 human remains that had been taken from them years before by museums and collectors across the country in what has been called the “Native American Holocaust.”

But 25 years later, more than 70 percent of Native American remains are still in control of museums and federal agencies, according to the 2014 report by the agency overseeing the repatriation program.

“When NAGPRA was enacted, it was really an attempt to right some wrongs,” Begay said. “However only some museums and only a few individuals have really adhered to the intent – the legal intent – of the law and also the spirit of the law.”

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, for example, has refused since 2004 to return six “sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony” to the Western Apache tribes in Arizona.

And the American Museum of Natural History in New York has agreed to give tribes 77 items, but without the legal classification of “sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony” that would confer ownership to the tribes – the items would essentially be on loan from the museum.

Critics say both museums have ignored recommendations by NAGPRA and by Smithsonian review committees to return the items.

The American Museum of Natural History did not respond to requests for comment. But the Smithsonian defended its compliance with the act, with a spokesman saying officials at the Washington museum are “extremely proud of our repatriation program and feel it has done much good through the Native community.”

In a statement to Cronkite News, the Smithsonian noted that its National Museum of Natural History had returned 200,000 different objects and the skeletal remains of about 6,000 individuals to more than 100 tribes. That does not include repatriation by the Smithsonian?s National Museum of the American Indian, which operates its own program.

The Smithsonian statement said the six items referenced by the Apache were among nine, three of which – cradles from infant grave sites – have been offered for repatriation. But the other items – a shirt, a medicine stick, two medicine hats, a war cap and a wooden charm – have not been shown to have come from the Western Apaches or that they rise to the level of sacred object, the statement said.

“The Smithsonian is willing to reconsider its determination with respect to the six disputed items if the Working Group can provide new or additional evidence to support its claims,” the statement said. “As of this date, the Working Group has not done so.”

Tribal members chafe at the fact that they have the burden of proof and that museums and federal institutions are given final

authority to decide whether to return items. They say institutions have dragged their feet for years, but the National NAGPRA office has little power to force compliance.

The road ends there for the tribes. They have no power under the law to force the museums to comply.

“It’s a standoff at this point,” said Vincent Randall, cultural preservation director with the Yavapai-Apache Nation in Arizona. “We have found that the review board has no power. They have no teeth.”

It wasn’t supposed to be that way.

When the law passed in 1990, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said it “is not about the validity of museums or the value of scientific inquiry. Rather, it is about human rights.”

The law was intended to foster good faith between the scientific community and tribes by recognizing that the tens of thousands of Native American human remains should be treated with dignity and returned to their descendants.

While consultation and collaboration between museums and tribes was supposed to be at the heart of NAGPRA, tribes have found in many instances that it is hard to overcome the prejudices of old institutions.

“It’s the world of academia meeting the world of Native thought and understanding about life, and often that can clash,” Begay said.

Randall has seen that clash with academics firsthand.

“They say, ‘Where did you get that information?’” he said. “I tell them: All of you sitting up there went to school and you have a Ph.D. behind your name. Well, these guys right here sitting in front of you are well beyond your Ph.D. because they lived it and they lived it all their life and they are experts. You are dishonoring our elders.”

Begay said he has seen a shift in viewpoints in the archaeology and anthropology communities, but it has been a “slow, snail-paced” movement.

But still, the museums hold all the cards, said James Riding In, an associate professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University.

“What NAGPRA did was it gave the museums and federal agencies a great deal of power over the determination of cultural affiliation,” Riding In said. “So they could have said, even if Indians did the consultation process and said, ‘These remains are ours or these cultural items are ours,’ the museums could use their own determination of what was returnable under the law.”

Critics say problems with enforcement of the program are compounded by the fact that NAGPRA is part of the National Park Service. It has underfunded NAGPRA, they say, and it has its own conflicts – the Park Service has a collection of human remains and cultural items that qualify for repatriation.

Grant money available to tribes and museums from NAGPRA to help with consultation and repatriation has fallen from a high of nearly $2.5 million in 1998 to just over $1.6 million in 2015. In fiscal 2011 and 2012, the National Park Service took $581,000 from NAGPRA grant money and moved it to support administrative costs, according to agency budget documents.

But the National NAGPRA office said all federal agencies have had to tighten their belts.

“Any federal budget changes affect all agencies. Sequestration affected everyone,” said National NAGPRA program officer Melanie O’Brien. “I don’t see NAGPRA holding the burden of the budget any more than any other federal agency.”

Sequestration is not the only problem the National NAGPRA office faces. It lost its civil penalty investigator in 2010, and while O’Brien said a new one was hired six months ago, there are 63 backlogged cases against museums for failure to comply with the law.

The office can prescribe civil penalties for museums, but advocates say those penalties – $42,679.34 paid by nine such facilities since 1996 – are “pennies” to large institutions.

“The only avenue they say we have is to bring a lawsuit,” Randall said of the Apaches’ struggle to get items returned. “But to be honest, we don’t have the money to fight a big institution that has money.”

There is no avenue under the law to encourage federal agencies to comply. The agencies have returned less than half of the human remains they held when the law was passed.

For museums, the exact number is uncertain because reporting the information to the national office is voluntary, but the latest report from National NAGPRA estimates museums have more than 140,000 human remains left to be repatriated.

“While much is being made of foreign auctions and the like, and the efforts of Jews to get back artwork stolen during the Holocaust, museums in this country are still falling short in returning items taken in the Native American Holocaust – by those very same museums – even when faced with completely legitimate claims,” said Seth Pilsk, a tribal official for the Western Apaches.

For tribal nations the “human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony” that NAGPRA dictates be returned are integral to their religious and cultural identities.

“I didn’t know those individuals but they’re still my people, they’re who we came from,” Riding In said. “And I don’t put a timeline on that feeling.

“It can go back deep in time that these are our ancestors and they deserve full human rights and no one asked them if they consented to be dug up and put on display and studied,” he said.

Many nations believe that social ills like alcoholism and domestic violence are caused by the unrest of their unburied ancestors, and because objects the tribe considers holy have been separated from the people.

“Those who don’t fulfill the spirit of the law, if that doesn’t happen, then these traumas continue to happen,” Begay said.

Skeleton found near Wallula Junction

By Davis Wahlman,

WALLULA, Wash. — KEPR investigating into reports of human remains being found just north of Wallula Junction.

A 14 year old and his father were hunting near the river when the came across a skeleton with a hole in the skull.

“I was about 100 yards in front of him, I just walked right up on it,” said 14 year old Mitchell Jackson.

He didn’t snag any geese on his hunting trip this weekend, but he did make a chilling discovery.

“I just see this white thing on the ground and I go walking closer to it. It looked like skull to me and I waited until my dad caught up to me and I said, ‘Dad, I think I found a human skull,” he said.

And he was right.

A skull, jaw bone, vertebrae, and rib cage just sticking out of the ground near their hunting spot along the river near Wallula. Mitchell’s father called the Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office who initially thought they could be looking at a homicide. But once the coroner and an archaeologist could took a closer look, they squashed that theory.

The land where they found the remains just north of Wallula Junction is all owned by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. So when they got the call, they knew they had a full plate.

We asked an archaeologist how old he might think the bones are.

“You know, they’re older than ten years old. I can’t tell you if they’re older than 100, 200, years old. They’ve definitely been there for quite a long time.”

Fish and Wildlife archaeologist Dale Earl is tasked with identifying and dating the remains which are now under lock and key at the McNary office in Burbank. He says the body could have been placed where the skeleton was found, or been carried by the river.

They are currently in talks with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation to see if it could be one of their ancestors.
While that could be the story, could we possibly be looking ground breaking find?

Reporter: “What are the odds of this being the next Kennewick Man?” Earl: “Very very remote.”

Fish and Wildlife will team up with an anthropologist to date the bones. Archaeologists say the dating process will take several weeks if not longer.

Miami Dolphins Stadium Built on Top of Native American Remains

Sun Life Stadium
Sun Life Stadium



In 1985, the Associated Press reported that the Miami Dolphins were building a stadium on top of ancient remains that allegedly belonged to deceased members of the Tequesta Indian tribe. The team’s Vice President Don Poss told the AP that construction over the remains was “definitely not a deal breaker,” and they proceeded to dig them up.

In 1987, Sun Life Stadium cost $90 million to build, according to the wire service. And the football team still plays its games at Sun Life stadium today.

RELATED: Kumeyaay Nation Wins Repatriation Case; Appeal Pending

The Los Angeles Times reported in 1987 that archaeologists claimed that the Tequesta Indians had used the site about 800 A.D., and then, the Seminole Indians occupied the grounds in the mid-19th century. “The burial grounds were excavated in 6-inch increments as experts sifted through the diggings,” the report said.

The Miami New Times recently wrote that the Dolphins were cursed and that is why they have not been to a Super Bowl since 1985, which was several months before the remains were discovered.

Here’s the New Times’ analysis:

Could the Miami Dolphins really have their own Curse of the Bambino on their hands? Could it be that we have found the root of all this pain and disappointment? Before you laugh it off, consider some of the facts:

– January 20,1985: Dolphins lose 38-16 to the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XIX.

– May 1985: Tequesta Indian artifacts and remains are discovered on the land where the Dolphins now play.

– May to December 1985: The Dolphins hire experts to sift through the site, recover, and remove every artifact they find.

– December 1, 1985: Less than 11 months later, the Dolphins continue construction on what is now known as Sun Life Stadium.

– 1985 to present: The Dolphins have not returned to the Super Bowl since.

You can read the rest of the paper’s article here.



Native American Activists Could Sue The City Of Nashville Over Ancient Remains

By Bobby Allyn, Nashville Public Radio

Albert Bender says the new Sounds stadium should be put on hold to find more ancient artifacts. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District/Flickr)
Albert Bender says the new Sounds stadium should be put on hold to find more ancient artifacts. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District/Flickr)

Native American activists are asking Nashville Mayor Karl Dean to halt the construction of a new minor league baseball stadium after archeologists discovered ancient artifacts. One Native American activist said a lawsuit could follow if the city ignores their demands.

Activist Albert Bender writes about Native American history for a living. He said more time should be given to archeologists to study the site. Bender considers next spring’s scheduled opening date of the new $150-million-dollar Sounds Stadium to be arbitrary.

“What is the problem with halting the construction of the ballpark for a few months to a year, when we’re talking about thousands of years of history that is waiting to be unearthed?” Bender asks.

What archeologists dug from the earth were ancient pottery used to boil water in the production of salt, which was then exported around the South some 800 years ago.

Archeologists will publish a detailed analysis of all findings form the site next month.

Last week, Bender presented the mayor with a list of demands. If the stadium construction isn’t put on pause, Bender would like to see the site at least commemorated in some way.

Among his suggestions is the development of an “interpretative center” in which the artifacts could be publicly viewed in a separate museum-like building.

“This is something we’re considering,” said Bonna Johnson, spokeswoman for Mayor Karl Dean. “We’ve asked the ballpark project team to look at ways to pay homage to the Native American history in that area. We will continue conversations with the Native American groups that approached us about this and work toward a solution.”

Bender says his American Indian Coalition, which is not an incorporated group, represents “all Native Americans who feel the way we do,” but it does to have an official member count.

Bender, who is an attorney but not licensed to practice in Tennessee, says suing over the matter is not out of the question.

“To my knowledge, this is the first time anything of this nature has ever been found in the state of Tennessee, or any where in the South” said Bender, who is writing a book on Native American history. “There is so much knowledge to be gained form this site, and we feel it far outweighs any artificial schedule, rush schedule, for the completion of the ballpark.”

A similar battle unfolded in Miami recently, where preservationists convinced developers to redesign a long-planned hotel to include a display of an ancient Native American village discovered during construction. The battle delayed the project for weeks and generated international attention.

Bender said the Miami case has many parallels with Nashville’s, and he said the success of preservationists there could embolden his own effort.

Bones Found Near Wanapum Dam Repatriated To Northwest Tribes


By Anna King

March 26, 2014

File photo. Two skeletons were found several weeks ago along newly exposed Columbia River shore. Anna King Northwest News Network
File photo. Two skeletons were found several weeks ago along newly exposed Columbia River shore.
Anna King Northwest News Network


Two skeletons found upstream of the cracked Wanapum Dam have been handed over to Northwest tribes.

The remains were found near each other several weeks ago along the newly exposed Columbia River shore.

The state says it has the legislative authority to determine if remains are Native American and then repatriate them to tribes if they are.

But Richard Jantz, a well-known physical anthropologist who fought for a decade in federal court to study Kennewick Man, says it’s unfortunate that Washington state didn’t carbon-date these newfound remains before handing them over.

“We study the remains of Americans of all ethnicities,” says Jantz. “I think everybody loses when we understand less about the past than we might have.”

State experts say their initial studies show that one skeleton is male, the second female. In addition, the female’s skull shows signs of being flattened by a cradleboard — a traditional baby carrier used by indigenous North Americans.

Northwest tribal leaders in the area say they find it very disturbing for remains to be studied in any way.

Possible Ancient Indian Cemetery Unearthed In Texas After Crew Finds Native American Bones

By Philip Ross, International Business Times

bones_16590A construction crew in central Texas may have unearthed the remains of an ancient Indian cemetery. Earlier this week, human bones were discovered at the site of a future 225-home subdivision in Round Rock, about 100 miles northeast of San Antonio. Work was halted after the bones were discovered and the police were called in to investigate.

According to Associated Press, after examining photos of the bones, an FBI anthropologist said that they appeared to be the remains of a Native American. On Friday, Texas State University anthropologists were called to the site to excavate the area, which has long been a popular spot to search for Indian arrowheads.

Because the possible Native American remains were found on private land, the developers, KB Home, are responsible for preserving the site or hiring a professional archaeologist to remove and relocate the remains. Texas state law says that even a single body constitutes a cemetery and a qualified anthropologist must determine if there are other remains in the area.

“You get more than a couple and people start to go, ‘whoa,’” Mark Denton, with the Texas Historical Commission, told AP. “We better wait and back off. We have to figure how we can preserve and protect this area rather than remove all of them.”

Historically, central Texas was home to several Native American tribes, including the Tonkawa, Apache and Comanche. According to the Star-Telegram, if investigators can determine to which tribe the ancient remains belonged, they would contact any present-day members of the tribe so the remains could be handled according to that group’s customs.

Decision postponed on housing plan for coastal Native American site


A decision on the fate of a five-acre parcel known as the Ridge at the southeast corner of Bolsa Chica Street and Los Patos Avenue has been postponed. (Kevin Chang / Huntington Beach Independent / December 31, 2013),0,7313049.story#ixzz2qOzsnYbw
A decision on the fate of a five-acre parcel known as the Ridge at the southeast corner of Bolsa Chica Street and Los Patos Avenue has been postponed. (Kevin Chang / Huntington Beach Independent / December 31, 2013)

By Anthony Clark Carpio  

The Los Angeles Times January 10, 2014

The California Coastal Commission has postponed a decision on whether to allow new housing construction on land in Huntington Beach that opponents say is home to Native American artifacts and remains.

At the request of the city, commissioners voted unanimously this week to postpone deciding whether to allow Huntington Beach to amend its Local Coastal Program — local governments’ guide to development in the coastal zone — to allow for new homes on the northwest portion of Bolsa Chica.

Huntington Beach Planning Director Scott Hess told commissioners that city officials and housing developers want more time to analyze and respond to late changes made to a report by coastal commission staff which had recommended denying the proposed amendment because it would “eliminate a higher priority land use designation and does not assure that significant culture resources and sensitive habitats will be protected” under the California Coastal Act.

Property owner Signal Landmark and developer Hearthside Homes want to build 22 “green” homes on a five-acre parcel called the Ridge near Bolsa Chica Street and Los Patos Avenue, the Huntington Beach Independent reported.

Preservationists say the Ridge site, as with the rest of the mesa, contains Native American artifacts and remains.

The updated report recommends that before the commission considers rezoning the Ridge, the city and the property owners “irrevocably” offer an adjacent 6-acre parcel to be dedicated to a governmental or nonprofit organization to be used as open space.

Other new recommendations include requiring a cultural resources protection plan and requiring current biological assessments to be done for both sites.

Huntington Beach Councilwoman Connie Boardman, who was at the hearing Wednesday with 30 or more Bolsa Chica Land Trust members, said the coastal commission made the right move in postponing the hearing.

“It’s appropriate to postpone something when the developer brings in something the morning of the hearing so that the public and the commissioners have a chance to evaluate the changes that they’re proposing,” she said.

2000-year old Native American woman’s skeleton unearthed at Florida dig site

Underneath the asphalt of a modern highway can be treasures of history. This proved to be the case for workers trying to install a water pipe in Davie, Florida. The workers were apparently working on a historical site, as upon survey, inspection, and some digging of archaeologists, a 2,000-year-old intact human skeleton on Pine Island Road was found.

By Randell Suba, Tech Times | January 13 2014

 The bones belonged to a five feet tall woman who might have been a member of the Tequesta native American tribe and estimated to be in her 20s or 30s at the time of her death. The remains did not indicate trauma, leading experts to conclude that she died of a disease.

“It’s unusually well preserved, considering it’s been under a highway with thousands and thousands of cars going over it every day,” said director of the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy Bob Carr.

Ryan Franklin, another member of the archaeological team corroborated Carr’s assessment.

(Photo : Lindsey Gira) A native American woman. In Davie, Florida, experts have unearthed an intact set of human bones at a construction site. The bones are believed to have belonged to a native American woman who lived 2,000 years ago.
(Photo : Lindsey Gira) A native American woman. In Davie, Florida, experts have unearthed an intact set of human bones at a construction site. The bones are believed to have belonged to a native American woman who lived 2,000 years ago.

“It was pretty exciting to find. We found the toe, which became a foot. When you find a toe, there’s a good chance there’s something else going on. We had to stop and contact the state,” Franklin said in an interview. “She was almost perfectly intact, which is unusual. Usually when we find graves that are this old, the acidity of the soil can deteriorate the bones, it was unusual given her age.”

Indications that this can be historical site led to a three-week pause of the construction work on Dec. 18, in accordance with Florida laws. The construction resumed last Thursday.

Out of respect to the tribes,, the skeleton cannot be photographed. Scientists cannot also chip a part of it to do carbon dating and accurately check its age. To estimate the age of the skeleton, experts based it on artifacts found earlier in the area.

According to experts, the Tequesta woman was accustomed to the life on the Pine Islands about 2,000 years back. She could have been a skilled weaver and knew how to prepare smoked fish. The woman might have also hunted and fished from her canoe. The area where the remains were discovered were actually surrounded by the Everglades that stretched as far as Fort Lauderdale and Davie.

In the 1980s, three intact skeletons were discovered in the area. The latest archaeological dig is considered as one of the oldest recovered skeletons and among the best preserved ones.

Search for Native American remains and historic sites in Hillsboro, OR

Crews with SWCA Environmental Consultants dig in a field east of Northwest 253rd Avenue in search of Native American remains or remnants of the historic Methodist Meeting House. The contract is now significantly more expensive, according to city officials (Andrew Theen/The Oregonian)
Crews with SWCA Environmental Consultants dig in a field east of Northwest 253rd Avenue in search of Native American remains or remnants of the historic Methodist Meeting House. The contract is now significantly more expensive, according to city officials (Andrew Theen/The Oregonian)

By Andrew Theen, The Oregonian 
July 24, 2013

Hillsboro’s ongoing search for human remains and historic sites in a field and along a gravel road earmarked for development has thus far turned up “two indistinguishable pieces of metal” and nearly $140,000 in unforeseen costs, according to public works officials.

The city hired SWCA Environmental Consultants to use ground-penetrating radar along Northwest 253rd Avenue in May to survey for historic sites. The initial contract was for $38,215. The new contract estimate is $177,813, according to a staff report presented to the Transportation Committee on Tuesday.

Local historians and some nearby residents believe one of Washington County’s oldest buildings, the Methodist Meeting House, used to be in that area. Descendants of Joseph and Virginia Meek, the famous Oregon frontiersman and his Nez Perce wife, are believed to have been buried near the meeting house too.

The ground-penetrating radar survey identified more than 600 anomalies that necessitated excavation to determine their historical significance, according to a staff report. So far  crews haven’t started to analyze the anomalies deemed of “highest interest,” due to permitting delays. That’s where the additional costs come into play.

“So far, we haven’t found anything,” Bob Sanders, assistant public works director, said on Tuesday. “But we still have to go through that process.”

That process, Sanders said, has been frustrating.

It will also likely push back Hillsboro’s schedule for widening and paving 253rd Avenue, a road that city officials call key to opening up the 330-acre North Industrial Areafor development.

The road, Sanders said, also has a more immediate need, as an escape route for residents on nearby Northwest Meek Road, who will lose access to Northwest Brookwood Parkway once a $45 million interchange project is scheduled to begin later this fall. Hillsboro initially hopes to break ground on the road project this summer, using $6.3 million from the interchange project and another $1.8 million in traffic impact fees to fund the road work.

Beyond analyzing the cultural resources along Northwest 253rd, which includes an 1890Queen Anne-style home built by John W. Shute, the city is going through a concurrent natural resources permitting process related to two creek crossings on the rural property.

Sanders said he’s now planning for a situation where the entirety of 253rd can’t move forward in time for Meek residents. He said the city is looking at another options, the extension of Northwest Huffman Street from 253rd east to Brookwood, as another route for Meek Road residents.

— Andrew Theen