Remapping Return: Carrying Our Ancestors Home

Until the passage of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in the 1990s, the legal language surrounding Native human remains recapitulated settler violence. Archaeology and anthropology in the U.S. has a fraught relationship with scientific racism and routine grave desecration. Perhaps most infamous are Thomas Jefferson’s excavation of Indigenous burial mounds by enslaved peoples and Dr. Samuel Morton’s crania studies which required the regular decapitation of disinterred bodies.6 Morton’s phrenology study data codified scientific racism as it weaponized the trope of the “Vanishing Indian.”7 Scientific racism worked in tandem with the establishment of property regimes, and property regimes extended, too, to the remains of Native and Indigenous peoples. The relegation of Native peoples into landscape and association with primitivism enabled the display of sacred items and the remains of ancestors within the venue of Natural History Museums and established settler “ownership” over ancestral remains “discovered” on private property. Consider, for instance, the 1906 Federal Antiquities Act which utilized a legal language whereby archaeological resources become federal property.

While it did attempt to limit looting, it communicated a worldview in which Native remains were the property of the United States government.8

Carrying Our Ancestors Home addresses both the violence of desecration and the victories and complexities of repatriation as it pertains to NAGPRA. This legislation was the hard-earned result of decades of organizing by Native and Indigenous peoples to reclaim sacred objects and human remains which had been violently and unethically taken, housed, and displayed. The law requires federal agencies and institutions having received federal funds to repatriate, or return, human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony.9 Much of the available materials on NAGPRA are authored by state-sanctioned entities or academic institutions, but COAH offers Indigenous and Native authored perspectives on repatriation for the benefit of both tribal community members and institutional representatives. The project again sees a UCLA-based team serving Native, Indigenous, and Aboriginal communities, directed by Dr. Wendy G. Teeter and Dr. Mishuana Goeman and managed by Sedonna Goeman-Shulsky (Топаwanda Band of Seneca), the Archaeology Collections Manager at the Fowler Museum. The project provides primary sources authored and approved by Indigenous and Native community members working with intuitions to trace the difficulties and varied protocols of repatriation. The site is built on Mukurtu CMS, an open-source content management system designed to house community digital heritage projects, and hosts a series of videos and relevant, curated literature as the project places institutions and tribal communities into conversation with one another.

Source Materials

In order to successfully repatriate ancestral remains and cultural items, institutions must develop respectful relationships with tribal communities and understand the context from which tribal and intuitional relationships emerged. To support this, COAH provides a socio-historical context for understanding NAGPRA and repatriation. The site hosts “Fighting for Our Ancestors,” a documentary tracing the American Indian Student Movement for Repatriation at UCLA in 1990s. The piece details on-campus and community American Indian political mobilization and the antagonistic response toward repatriation from the departments of Anthropology and Archaeology. Despite a pronounced history of violence in the fields, the passage of NAGRA resulted in a series of settler colonial critiques of repatriation which cast Native, Indigenous, and Aboriginal communities as adversaries to scientific study and advancement. These critiques re-entrenched both scientific racism and recirculated an imaginary in which Native and Indigenous peoples are relegated to a moment in the past or represented only in the present as a demonstration of backwardness. These combative responses are also documented on the site’s featured timeline, built on Northwestern University Knight Lab’s TimelineJS platform, which offers a chronological history of repatriation on a national and local level from the late 1960s to present.

Carrying Our Ancestors Home’s media grapples with a catalog of institutional violence while demonstrating a willingness to work with institutions and alongside scientific communities to accomplish repatriation. Carrying Our Ancestors Home provides “Repatriation Stories” as video content which features interviews with tribal community members and elders, Native and Indigenous scholars and activists, and

14 Sarah Montoya

From “Repatriation Stories.” Videos and documents are organized and accessible through Mukurtu’s meta-data tags which include content type, community, category, and keywords (pictured here)

Figure 1.2 From “Repatriation Stories.” Videos and documents are organized and accessible through Mukurtu’s meta-data tags which include content type, community, category, and keywords (pictured here).

repatriation coordinators. “What is NAGPRA?” outlines the scope of the law while noting the difficulties of implementation, the variance amongst institutions and tribes, and the short-comings of the legal language utilized in the legislation—including the politics of federal recognition. When NAGPRA was put into effect, it created the legal necessity for NAGPRA Coordinators, working for respective institutions that were under the jurisdiction of NAGPRA, to consult with tribal members or representatives of Native communities. In “Why is There Variation in Implementation of Repatriation?,” interviewees explain that Native cultures and spiritual practices are not monolithic; thus NAGPRA, while providing the legal impetus, represents only a cursory step in a much longer process. The site archives and makes widely available a set of repatriation-related documents, including Indigenous and Native-authored repatriation literature. The content emphasizes that institutions must remain flexible in understanding that repatriation protocol and procedure can vary greatly.

Carrying Our Ancestors Home archives concerted Native and Indigenous repatriation efforts, offering hope and guidance to other Native and Indigenous communities. In “Rapa Nui Repatriation 2018,” authored by Ma’u Henua News, community members return two ancestors to their homelands. Additional video content comes in the form of conference presentations and round tables where tribal community members discuss their experiences in museum/institutional environments and their experiences with navigating repatriation efforts. Supporting literature includes guides for both museums and communities authored by Native and Indigenous communities. In many ways, COAH serves as a hub for resource-distribution as Native communities continue to navigate the legal and social implications of NAGPRA.

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