Trauma, healing and hope as stolen Native remains return home

By: and - June 17, 2023 3:38 am

Photo in a 1972 Nishnawbe News article showing a sign to a mass, uncovered gravesite of Indigenous remains

“Nothing is sacred if it is old and non-white. Especially if it is buried in the ground,” reads a 1972 Nishnawbe News article featured alongside a photo of an uncovered mass gravesite.

Written for the Native-run Northern Michigan University newspaper 50 years ago, the student author’s piece describes a public display in St. Ignace in which a white landowner charged onlookers a fee to view the remains of 52 Native Americans.

It was a scene Indigenous communities in Michigan and across the country have known well: The sacred bones of their loved ones on display for nothing more than the entertainment of white people, the callousness with which Native bodies are treated, and the longstanding echoes of genocide and white supremacy that Indigenous people have faced since white colonizers first arrived on the land where Native communities had lived for millennia and claimed it as their own.

The bones, which had been placed into the earth with great care and ceremony, were never meant to be disturbed. But they were.

Often encouraged by the federal government – the passage of the Antiquities Act of 1906, for example, essentially gave anthropologists legal rein over Indigenous sites – millions of Native remains, funerary objects and cultural items were, with no permission from tribes, taken from burial sites across the country and sent to museums, universities and other institutions nationwide during the 19th and 20th centuries. There, the remains of people who once walked this earth were used for instruction in classrooms and showcased in museum exhibitions.

“Our property is not found in wealth. It is found in being at peace. And for this reason, when you disturb our ancestors, you are disrupting their peace,” said Nathan Wright, a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. | Courtesy photo

If you’ve ever been to a Native American burial, there are a lot of protocols,” said Nathan Wright, a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan and the founder of MackinawOde, a group that works to connect Indigenous communities with allies to protect the environment. “We believe our ancestors go on a four-day journey back to the spirit world. We light and keep a fire for them during this time. We cover up our mirrors; we smudge the area around them. Everything we do is to help prepare them for their journey. So with all of our intricacies and ceremonies, you can imagine why anyone disturbing our graves would upset us.”

It was not until 1990 that the federal government passed a law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), that gave tribes the legal right to request remains and sacred objects from the places that harbored them. As part of the law, government agencies and institutions like museums and universities that receive federal funding must report whether they hold, or have held, Native remains or funerary objects. The resulting data paints a picture of the widespread theft of Native remains and the institutions that have yet to return those remains decades after NAGPRA went into effect.

In Michigan, more than 3,100 Native remains were taken and/or held by 52 institutions [a list of which can be seen here] that receive federal funds across the country, from the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology to the New York University College of Dentistry and Harvard University, according to a ProPublica report that was published earlier this year. Thirty-two institutions in Michigan reported having Native remains taken from across the country, that same report said. Private institutions, like churches, and individuals have also held remains, and still do, but they are not legally mandated to report their remains to the federal government as institutions receiving federal funding must. The ProPublica investigation used data provided by the National Park Service, which maintains a NAGPRA-mandated database of the reported remains and funerary items.

These are numbers, Native leaders said, that point to a centuries-old story: One of white colonizers, a white government and white-led institutions saying they have the right to desecrate Indigenous bodies. They have the right to steal bones, to make money from human remains, to, Wright said, obliterate the peace Native communities once knew.

“Our teachings are so intricate,” Wright said. “We know how a person dies. We know about the journey they go on. The stream/river they cross. The giant strawberry they give tobacco to. The two paths they choose to make it to the great hunting grounds. Our ultimate place is not lined with gold. It is lined with love. Our property is not found in wealth. It is found in being at peace. And for this reason, when you disturb our ancestors, you are disrupting their peace. You are taking away our values, our wealth, which is measured in love, not greed. You will never see a Native American disrespect non-Indigenous gravesites, ever. We know that is not right.”

Bringing ancestors and objects back home, there’s a lot of healing that happens. The ancestors that, once buried, were on their journey, and being ripped from the ground, that disrupts the journey for them.

– Colleen Medicine, a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians

When NAGPRA passed, Indigenous leaders told the Advance that Native people across Michigan and throughout the country released a collective exhale. Finally, they said, there was a sense that Native communities would be able to welcome home their stolen loved ones and return their remains to the earth from which they should have never left. 

“Native people thought, ‘Finally, these items will be protected,’” said Shannon O’Loughlin, the CEO and attorney for the Association on American Indian Affairs and a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. “Unfortunately that’s not quite what occurred.”

Instead of seeing their remains quickly returned, a process that Indigenous leaders said would have significantly contributed to healing from generations of atrocities committed against Native communities, they told the Advance that the process to reclaim their ancestors and sacred objects has been painstakingly slow since NAGPRA passed in 1990. That, O’Loughlin said, has been deeply harmful to Native communities that had long tried to work with various institutions on repatriation – the process of transferring human remains – but faced endless barriers to reclaiming their ancestors.

“People just wholeheartedly never found a problem with digging up Indigenous ancestors and doing whatever it was that they wanted to do without any repercussions,” O’Loughlin said.

Since NAGPRA passed, 609 federally-funded institutions and government agencies across the country self-reported holding 208,698 human remains, according to the most recent data from the National Park Service, a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Interior. That department – led by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold that position – oversees NAGPRA. A little less than half – 48% – of those remains have been made available for return, the National Park Service reported. “Available for return” is the terminology used for federal reporting purposes, meaning remains have been returned to Indigenous communities or are in the process of being transferred.

Institutions are not legally required to let the federal government know when  repatriation has been completed.

Debra Haaland, Secretary of the Interior, on February 24, 2021 in Washington, DC. | Leigh Vogel-Pool/Getty Images

While institutions, including those interviewed by the Advance for this story, said they diligently work with tribes to transfer remains, critics said NAGPRA has permitted museums, schools and other places nationwide to have the final say as to whether Native remains and objects are “culturally related” to the tribes that are seeking repatriation. That can then result in the institution holding onto the remains, despite the fact that Native communities have asked for their return.

NAGPRA has had “loopholes that have allowed institutions to delay and deny repatriation requests from tribes,” O’Loughlin said.

“And because there hasn’t been any oversight in the national NAGPRA program or the Department of the Interior of checking on whether the museums are actually going through the process that NAGPRA provides, museums have just been allowed to practice NAGPRA contrary to the law,” she continued.

That, however, may be poised to change, O’Loughlin said. In October, Haaland proposed revisions to NAGPRA regulations meant to expedite the return of remains and sacred objects to tribes over the course of three years. Those proposed changes, which followed the Interior Department consulting with 71 tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations, would give greater power to Indigenous communities, O’Loughlin said.

“It uses language of deference to tribes, which is extremely important, so that the museums are making decisions based in consultation that defers to tribes and their traditional and cultural practices,” O’Loughlin said. “So there’s really some important changes in the new regulations that we hope will change this regular course of business that museums have gotten themselves into.”

‘Where’s the rest of our ancestor?’

While Native leaders described feeling grateful that their families’ remains are, finally, being returned, they said the fact that they were ever taken from their burial sites is rooted in the United States’ history of genocide and white supremacy. Indigenous people were murdered en masse, forced from their land, and made to attend boarding schools, including in Michigan, in an effort to entirely erase Indigenous culture and assimilate them into a white world, the leaders said.

“All you’re doing is perpetuating the cycle of how this happens, and the cycle of abuse that our people are faced with; we can’t even rest in peace,” said Meredith Kennedy, an educator and activist in the land of Waganakising (which means “land of crooked trees” and is also known as the area between Harbor Springs and Cross Village). 

Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School opening day, June 30, 1893 | Courtesy of the Alice
Littlefield Collection, Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture &

Kennedy, a citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, was part of the very last generation of students to attend the brutal boarding schools designed to eradicate Indigenous culture. Kennedy attended the Holy Childhood School of Jesus in Harbor Springs until 1986.

It is this cycle of abuse cited by Kennedy that must end once and for all, Native leaders said. Among the many complex layers involved in dismantling the centuries-long abuse of Indigenous people is institutions acknowledging and apologizing for their role in unearthing and profiting from human remains – as well as from attempts at cultural genocide, Native leaders said.

Those helming some cultural institutions in Michigan said they understand that and want to make amends for the past.

Andrea Melvin, a spokesperson for the Grand Rapids Public Museum (GRPM), acknowledged that “museums and tribes have maintained complex and sordid relationships that have been detrimental to tribal histories, cultures and communities.

These relationships have had lasting negative impacts on tribes and tribal people,” Melvin said. “Therefore, we make every effort to work closely with tribes on any and all matters that impact tribes, not just NAGPRA… We recognize tribes as sovereigns that have the expertise and capacity to act as partners in this work.”

While Grand Rapids museum has worked hard to repatriate Native remains, Melvin said a portion of the remains have been deemed ineligible for return because “some of the ancestors that the museum has in its NAGPRA collections were collected at a time in history when amateur archeologists and private collectors were heavily involved in excavation, purchase, trade, and sale of human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony.”

“In instances where ownership and possession changed hands multiple times before coming to the museum, provenance information may not be available,” she continued. “This means that affiliating those remains and objects with a tribe and making them available for repatriation is virtually impossible.”

Leora Tadgerson of the Bay Mills Indian Community speaks at the “Heart of the Turtle” international Indigenous gathering in opposition to oil pipelines, Mackinaw City, May 13, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

For Native leaders, it’s this idea – that they may never see all of their stolen ancestors and how Indigenous communities have long been treated – that is especially haunting. “Unfortunately, growing up it was common to learn about ancient Egyptian mummies and treat them as objects of fascination,” said Miskopwaaganikwe Leora Tadgerson, a member of the Gnoozhikaaning, Bay Mills and Wiikwemkong First Nations and the director of diversity, equity and inclusion with the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan. “This mode of detachment translates over to Indigenous bodies, as well as in Western educational settings. It causes a detrimental paradigm of society having a subconscious numbness to both the historic and present day remains of Native people. 

“Our media supporting negative depictions of Tribal citizens through caricatures furthers the mentality,” Tadgerson continued. “These both lead into aspects of human trafficking of Native people, such as the crime pattern of the missing and murdered Indigenous women, and the lack of accountability of the children buried on the church grounds of Native boarding schools.” 

Even the language around this history is problematic. “Remains,” Indigenous leaders said, really means: Native people whose bodies white settlers, among others, decided they could take apart. Often, portions of humans, like jaws and heads, were sent to museums and universities. The University of Michigan, for example, once had a cranium that came from the St. Ignace area before 1924. That ancestor was transferred to the requesting tribes in 2012, according to the school.

“I wholeheartedly, as an Odawa, believe that we should be getting back all of our remains no matter what,” Kennedy said. “But we also have to realize as tribal people you might just get a jaw bone back. Where’s the rest of our person? Where’s the rest of our ancestor? That is something we need to think about too.”

Of all the Michigan institutions that have reported holding remains, the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology has, by far, the largest number of human remains.

I wholeheartedly, as an Odawa, believe that we should be getting back all of our remains no matter what. But we also have to realize as tribal people you might just get a jaw bone back. Where's the rest of our person? Where's the rest of our ancestor?

– Meredith Kennedy, an educator and activist in the land of Waganakising

Ben Secunda, the NAGPRA project manager at the University of Michigan’s Office of the Vice President for Research, said the museum has transferred the remains of “nearly 900 individuals” and “thousands of funerary objects” to tribes throughout the country, including in Michigan. There are the remains of 600 individuals that are “pending transfer,” Secunda said. The school has identified 781 remains as not being available for return, according to the National Park Service’s NAGPRA database. 

Michigan State University held the second highest number of remains in the state and has made all 544 remains available for return, spokesman Dan Olsen said. So far, MSU has repatriated “around 500 ancestors and the 84,000 associated funerary objects that accompanied the ancestors,” Olsen said. A “vast majority” of those repatriated were from Michigan. The stories behind many of those who have been repatriated can be found on MSU’s NAGPRA website.

Other institutions have completed repatriation. Thirty-nine of the 52 institutions that reported holding remains from Michigan have made 100% of the remains available for return, according to data provided to the National Park Service. The Lakeshore Museum Center in Muskegon, for example, has returned all nine remains that it once housed.

“For me, there’s no reason our museum should have human remains,” Lakeshore Museum Center Executive Director Melissa Horton said.

Horton said the remains once housed at the Lakeshore Museum Center came from archaeological digs in the 1930s and 40s, and those who found them “didn’t know where else to take them.”

Once NAGPRA was enacted, “it was the right thing to do to let [Native communities] rebury their ancestors who shouldn’t have been dug up in the first place,” Horton said.

Still, Native leaders said, they were unearthed – and institutions need to gain a thorough understanding of these histories – and how they impact Indigenous communities today, Tadgerson said. After all, she pointed out, remains are not relegated to individuals from long ago – human remains continue to be found across the country, including those of Native children forcibly taken from their families and placed in boarding schools.

“It isn’t always ancestors we’re working on getting back to our communities,” Tadgerson said. “These are also recent family members, friends, fellow children from the [boarding] schools who never made it home.”

Sault Tribe elder Ron Paquin, who attended Holy Childhood in Harbor Springs between the ages of 9 and 12 years old and has lived in St. Ignace his entire life, said of the boarding school that, “If you wanted to believe in a god, you damn sure didn’t believe it after you’ve been in there.”

Paquin also noted that St. Ignace, located along Lake Huron in the Upper Peninsula, is filled with remains of Indigenous people and cultures who have lived in the area for thousands of years. 

“We might be living on bones right now,” he said of his century-old home in St. Ignace. “If they accidentally get dug up, [treat them] in a respectable way. That’s what I believe should be done, not just shoved in a museum.”

Ultimately, Native leaders said they hope the return of all remains means they can finally focus on healing instead of ever-growing generational trauma.

“Restorative justice is a needed component to healing intergenerational trauma,” Tadgerson said. “In doing this, it can aid in streamlining the repatriation process.”

In these days that follow hundreds of years of trauma, there is finally a chance to heal, at least in part, because of the return of remains – provided the government and institutions listen to Native communities, leaders said.

It is, said Colleen Medicine, a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, a way for Native communities to say to those who have been stolen: Welcome home. We have missed you. And your return is making us whole again.

“Bringing ancestors and objects back home, there’s a lot of healing that happens,” she said. “The ancestors that, once buried, were on their journey, and being ripped from the ground, that disrupts the journey for them.

“Every time we bring ancestors home, we understand that part of that circle gets healed again,” Medicine continued. “So it’s about honoring and respect for those who came before us, but it’s also about trying to heal little parts of us today that help our youth have a better future for tomorrow.”

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is a former assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats included economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country.

Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.