In cavernous storage rooms closed to tourists at the Smithsonian's
Museum of Natural History lie the bones of about 14,700 Native Americans.
hopes that they quickly would be returned to tribal lands, most
are likely to stay where they are for a long time.
passed in 1989 and 1990 require the Smithsonian and other museums
to inventory collections of Native American remains and return them
than one-fifth of the Smithsonian's original collection of 18,000
remains have been returned; an additional 90,000 sets of remains
in the nation's other museums lack sufficient documentation to ensure
their return any time soon.
problem is that repatriating remains can take years because of scientific
uncertainty about their origins, the work involved in identifying
them and traditions observed by many of the 770 federally recognized
these laws were passed, people pushing them thought it was going
to take five years to return what was collected, but they had no
idea what they were asking. It's an incredibly complex task,"
said Thomas Killion, an anthropology professor at Wayne State University
in Detroit, who formerly headed the Smithsonian's repatriation office.
Smithsonian which has the largest single collection of bones
by far spends $1 million a year and has 15 anthropologists
and researchers poring over the bones in an effort to return them
to their descendants.
it isn't enough to ensure quick returns.
think the process is going to take a very long time," said
William Billeck, head of the Smithsonian's repatriation office.
bones at the Smithsonian and other museums were unearthed over the
years by archeologists, private collectors, government expeditions,
construction workers and farmers. During the 1800s, for example,
Army physicians were under orders to ship east for study any Native
American skulls they found.
tribal officials say they understand why repatriation takes so long.
But they're still angry that the bones were dug up and stored in
the first place.
should have just been left where they were. It's very dehumanizing,"
said Francis Morris, the Pawnee tribe's repatriation coordinator.
380 museums, historical societies and federal agencies covered by
the repatriation law have 27,312 sets of remains available for repatriation.
But an additional 90,833 remain unidentified because of poor documentation
about where and when they were found and may never be returned.
the tribal affiliation of a set of bones is a painstaking process.
researchers must check any written records accompanying the remains
often notes from archeologists or Army officers, Billeck
said. If they're too vague, scientists turn to ancient maps, letters
and colonial records that describe fluid tribal boundaries.
remains can be straightforward, or next to impossible to identify,"
example, Billeck's recent search for Kiowa remains began with an
examination of a set of bones from South Dakota that Army officers
originally sent to the Army Medical Museum in 1860. The remains
were labeled Kiowa, but based on where they were found, the shape
of the skull and other historical data, they turned out to be Sioux.
no way of knowing what you have until you get into working with
it," he said.
Smithsonian receives two or three formal requests from tribes each
year, and each takes two to three years to complete, Billeck said.
don't want remains
the Smithsonian can move quickly on high-profile repatriations.
Consider the case of Ishi, a California native known as the last
"wild Indian" who died in 1916. When a researcher discovered
Ishi's brain at the Smithsonian in 1999, the story attracted national
press, and politicians demanded its return to California soil.
were getting letters from politicians, people like (California Lt.
Gov.) Cruz Bustamante and Sen. (Dianne) Feinstein. It was given
a top priority," said Killion, who worked on the Ishi repatriation.
took only a month for the Smithsonian to recommend that Ishi's brain
be returned, Killion said. But negotiations with the California
tribes that had jurisdiction over his burial site, north of Sacramento
near Mount Lassen, took more than a year.
other cases, experts say the slow pace is not the Smithsonian's
fault. Many Native groups don't want the remains, while others need
time to plan for repatriation ceremonies and burials.
takes time and money to do this. You have to have burial grounds
and air fare and shipping costs," said the Pawnees' Morris.
deeply spiritual Navajo, the largest tribe in the United States,
traditionally avoid contact with human remains and don't want theirs
back. Nor do the Zuni, another Southwestern tribe, who believe remains
are desecrated once they've been dug up.
others, repatriation requires unaccustomed preparation. "There
isn't a reburial ceremony for our tribe. This is a modern situation
and we never had to rebury anyone before," said Julie Olds,
cultural-preservation officer of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma.
also are disputes. The Pawnee found themselves in a two-year dispute
with the Smithsonian when they filed a 1995 claim on 53 sets of
remains and 178 funerary objects dating to 1000 A.D.
artifacts were unearthed in the 1930s on a farm near St. Joseph,
Mo., an area that has been home to several tribes, including the
Iowa, the Kaw and the Ponca.
problem was the Pawnee were in the Plains for a long time, but other
tribes had moved into the area, so the question was, were these
remains part of that migratory pattern?" Billeck said.
Pawnee eventually agreed to share the remains with the other tribes.
They were reburied in 1997 not far from the spot they were found.
say some remains predate the tribes that claim them.
you get remains beyond 1,000 or 2,000 years, you're no longer able
to culturally affiliate with many tribes or groups of people who
came along later," said Richard Jantz, an anthropology professor
at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
fate of Kennewick Man, a 9,000-year-old skeleton scattered in pieces
along the Columbia River in Washington, has been tied up in the
courts since it was found in 1996. Native tribes want the skeleton
reburied, while scientists want to keep it for research.
is one of 15 or so sets of remains that date back 8,000 years or
so and hopefully can tell us something about the earliest Americans,"
said Jantz, one of eight scientists suing for access to the skeleton.
researchers argue that wholesale repatriation is a mistake. "The
risk is that a source of scientific inquiry is going to be lost,"
said Christopher Ruff, an anatomy professor at Johns Hopkins Medical
used the Harvard University Peabody Museum's Pecos Collection, a
set of 2,000 remains unearthed in New Mexico beginning in 1915,
in studies that compared their skeletons with modern cadavers.
was able to show that exercise and an active lifestyle stem the
effects of osteoporosis. The collection later was returned to the
Pueblo tribes and reburied.