Jackie Swift
Jackie Swift Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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An Army doctor snatched wool leggings from Sitting Bull’s body and stole a lock of his hair after he died in 1890. He gave his loot to the Smithsonian, and it ended up with the National Museum of Natural History, where it stayed for well over a century until, in 2007, the Smithsonian returned the leggings and hair to a descendant of the Native American leader.

Strolling through the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of the American Indian, both on the Mall in D.C., it is plain that the Smithsonian is home to thousands upon thousands of the most precious items and sacred treasures in the world. But to whom do they really belong? 

The Smithsonian’s two repatriation offices are currently trying to figure that out, piece by piece. One office is at Natural History, and the other is at the American Indian museum.

Beyond objects, the Smithsonian has a collection that is incredibly sacred to indigenous populations. At a secure center in Suitland—well out of view of museum-goers—the institution keeps thousands of human remains, and many among them are indigenous individuals. Natural History counts about 30,000 human remains in its care, which includes native and non-native people. Thus far 6,219 remains of indigenous people have been either repatriated or made available for repatriation to their ancestral homes. But that number goes up every year as the museum identifies more remains eligible for repatriation. American Indian has fewer than 200 human remains and has set a goal to reduce that number to zero.

The indigenous remains are from the world over—the U.S., Mexico, Ecuador, New Zealand, Australia—and their living descendants want them back. 

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The purpose of each repatriation office is to return sacred and funerary objects, and remains of individuals, back to the communities and people with whom they most belong. “The phrase ‘who owns the past’ is a really common refrain in repatriation and in anthropology in general,” says Laurie Burgess, associate chair of the department of anthropology at Natural History. “Because in the past, the dominant culture of any given country has asserted their rights over remains and objects. Now, that has changed completely and we recognize and celebrate the rights of indigenous groups.”

These individuals held in museum collections once lived, they once had names and families. The repatriation offices refer to them as people, remains, and individuals, never as “items” or “objects.” 

But the reason the remains are in the collections in the first place, says Te Herekiekie Herewini, head of repatriation at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, is because of the mentality that people can be owned.

“Although slavery in the western world ended in most western countries around the 1860s, there was still the thought of scientists and western academics and people who worked in museums that indigenous remains could be owned,” says Herewini. “That’s why they were taken, because people believed that they could own our ancestors and place them in museums. That’s what we’re actually trying to overcome, that idea of ownership. For me, it’s quite a sad situation where institutions overseas see that they still own human beings.”

In 2016, the National Museum of Natural History successfully repatriated more than 50 Māori and Moriori individuals to Te Papa in New Zealand.

“I was brought up in a small Māori community, and as a Māori person raised in a Māori family, I was raised with a Māori understanding of the world,” he says. “One of the understandings we are raised with is we offer honor and respect to our ancestors. This job of repatriating our ancestors located in overseas institutions fits well with my understanding of the world and with maintaining that connection with the ancestors, and bringing them home, to me, is the ultimate respect.”

The D.C. repatriation offices are dedicated to righting historical wrongs, just as they did in the case of Sitting Bull. Jackie Swift, who is Comanche and Fort Sill Apache, serves as the repatriation manager at NMAI. “It’s a human rights issue for native people,” Swift says. In terms of remains, she says, “They were people. At what point in time is it OK to say, ‘Yeah, it’s OK to dig up my mom’? How many years pass for that? What’s the standard requirement? When should I say I don’t care? It gets back to humanizing this process. It’s a grotesque dehumanization and disrespect for native people.”

History is an indelible part of repatriation and the key to understanding it. According to Natural History repatriation manager Bill Billeck, during the 1800s and early 1900s archaeologists, anthropologists, and others working on excavations, primarily in village sites and sometimes in cemeteries, acquired many of the human remains and objects in the Smithsonian’s holdings. 

Some took remains in the name of racism masked as science to try and prove that Native Americans were not the first people on the land, or that their skulls were smaller so therefore they were inferior to white colonists. “There were people who were filling skulls with buckshot to rationalize and justify white supremacy,” Swift says. “Then Francis Galton came over with his eugenics movement. And that was a pseudoscience trying to justify white superiority over everybody else.” 

This was the case in 1931, says AlexAnna Salmon, president of the Igiugig Village Council in Alaska, when Smithsonian physical anthropologist Aleš Hrdlička stole the bones of 24 people from the area. She says her community has survived in the area for 8,000 proven years on salmon alone, since time immemorial. “He used a pickaxe to pick them out of the ice and out of the ground and he put them in boxes and labeled them and had them shipped on these big ships back to D.C.—ship and train and however else,” she says. 

In 2014 she and the rest of Igiugig Village Council learned of the human remains, and in 2015 sent a formal repatriation request. The next year, both her community and the Smithsonian conducted extensive research to determine the cultural affiliation of the remains. Salmon had written her thesis about Igiugig history while at Dartmouth College. “We were able to use my thesis as kind of a defense that they were our people,” she says. In July of 2017, Igiugig reached an agreement with Natural History, and in September, they reburied their community members. “They’re only about 150 years old, so they were no longer ancestors, they were actually relatives,” she says. “They could’ve been my great-grandmother’s mother or sister.”


Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Federal lawmakers created the 1906 Antiquities Act to protect archaeological sites from being looted—robbed of native items and also native remains. “Within that protection, it included native human remains alongside the pots,” Swift says. “So they were things. We were things back then.”

The government established the National Museum of the American Indian Act (NMAI Act) in 1989, and it directed repatriation of cultural items in the Smithsonian’s collections. Originally, the act covered only human remains and funerary objects and provided for repatriation upon a showing of cultural affiliation. 

In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) required that indigenous groups be consulted whenever workers on archeological investigations encountered, or expected to encounter, remains and cultural items, or when people unexpectedly discovered such items on federal or tribal lands. The act describes the rights that both lineal descendants and native groups have with regard to the treatment, repatriation, and disposition of Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. Amendments to the NMAI Act in 1996 modified it to extend coverage to sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony based on NAGPRA’s standards. 

These laws do not apply to privately held collections, and there is no official international repatriation law.

Swift says, “If you look at where we’ve come from—and we still have a long ways to go—but where we come from, it means a lot to have this legislation in place and it’s a little bit sad that we actually have to have this legislation in place if you look at basic human rights. But we do.”

Repatriation staffers work diligently, spending long hours researching the collections, looking at museum records, developing relationships with tribal representatives, and writing detailed reports. Indigenous ancestral remains and objects determined to be sacred or funerary are available for repatriation by request, but staffers must then vet each request and establish cultural affiliation with the requestors, consulting with indigenous communities through much of the process. Communities sometimes prepare ceremonies to mark successful repatriations and to finally lay their ancestors to rest.

“It’s a long-term commitment, rightfully so,” says Swift. “It’s been the most personally and professionally fulfilling work I’ve ever been a part of.” 

But the decision to repatriate remains or objects is always the Smithsonian’s. If a tribe disagrees with a decision, they can appeal to an advisory external review committee, but the Smithsonian can reject the committee’s advice. Billeck says that only twice in almost 30 years has the external review committee reviewed a decision.

Repatriation can be a long, arduous journey. Sometimes, repatriation offices need more staff than they have. (The two offices combined currently employ 11 people.) “Some repatriations are for just a few objects and human remains; some are for hundreds, and those are much more complicated for the tribe and for us,” Billeck says. “We have some of the biggest collections and the biggest repatriation responsibility.”

Repatriation can also be expensive for communities. Often, Herewini says, tribal groups must fund it themselves. 

The Igiugig community paid for parts of their September 2017 repatriation. Flying in a priest for the reburial, building coffins and crosses, flying in an archaeologist, and other costs added up to around $15,000. The archaeology work alone was nearly $5,000. They turned to their local and regional corporations for donations, which came to about $10,000. “I live in rural Alaska where it’s a dollar a pound to ship anything,” Salmon says. “We could’ve done it for really cheap if we put them in our current graveyard, but it wouldn’t have been proper.” 

Indigenous people, like all people, are not monolithic. Each tribal group, each community, must work at its own pace and in its own way. Sometimes the Smithsonian is prepared for repatriation, but the specific tribal community is not yet ready to receive ancestral remains. 

Repatriation offices and indigenous communities everywhere must find ways to work through those challenges that come with rectifying hundreds of years of colonial inhumanity. And they are. Te Papa has been accepting remains from around the world, and it has successfully returned more than 400 Māori ancestors to the country. The Smithsonian has performed successful repatriations for decades, publishing annual reports on its activities.

In 2015, Natural History developed its own policy regarding international repatriation, focused on human remains, smoothing the path to its program returning individuals to New Zealand in 2016. Currently, the museum is in the process of repatriating Aboriginal remains to Australia.

“The law certainly doesn’t prohibit international repatriation, it just really governs domestic repatriation,” says Burgess. “But we decided it was time for the museum to start an international repatriation initiative. We know how complicated repatriation can be, and we really didn’t want to get involved in the cultural politics of another country so we leave it to the indigenous group and their government. All they have to do is ask for it and we will automatically return remains.” 

Te Papa is a model for how to successfully run a bicultural museum. One of its responsibilities as the national museum of New Zealand is to highlight challenging stories throughout the country, including the trading of ancestral remains and the colonization process. “By having a repatriation program based within our national museum—and we’re mandated by the New Zealand government and supported by Māori and Moriori communities—it allows our museum sector and our national museum to actually be part of the restitution of our ancestors and the reconciliation process,” Herewini says. “Our museum is based on bicultural principles. We incorporate a Māori understanding of the world into our practices, we incorporate Māori conservation practices, we incorporate Māori ways of engaging with our community.”

This relationship is unusual, he says. “What I did work out when I was visiting institutions in the United States and Canada is that, in some situations, they don’t actively engage with their indigenous communities from the immediate area. But I think it’s a new thing for all museums in countries where they have indigenous communities—Australia, Canada. All countries are learning to actually develop meaningful relationships with indigenous communities.”


Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Human remains and sacred objects living in private collections are another arena entirely. The U.S. laws do not apply to these collections, and the auctions that sell them are a free-for-all commodification of indigenous culture and heritage.

In early October the Association on American Indian Affairs, a Rockville-based nonprofit, publicly pushed back on an auction of cultural items. The organization, formed in 1922, advocates on behalf of Native Americans and helps tribes fight for repatriation, but has previously let tribes take the lead on whether they want to fight for their sacred objects and remains. Times have changed. 

The association released a statement in response to a recent international auction in Paris at the EVE auction house. Without proper notice to tribal nations, the release says, the auction house placed 38 Native American cultural objects up for sale. (The auction house did not respond to a request for comment.)

“That is the first time that we have submitted a press release that takes the position that all collectors and auctioneers should be contacting tribes to establish provenance,” says Shannon Keller O’Loughlin, executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs and a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

The release reads: “The Association strongly reaffirms that the commercialization of Native American cultural heritage violates all Tribal and customary laws, and that the possession of human remains and their burial items, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony, outside of their original communities are the result of theft, looting and illegal trafficking. The commercialization of Native American cultural heritage as ‘art’ or ‘antiquities’ are in large part due to the reality that U.S. laws do not sufficiently protect Native American cultural heritage from commercial trafficking. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) only protects Native American cultural items that have been illegally trafficked from a museum who has received federal funds, or a federal agency, since November 16, 1990. Those same items are not protected outside of these limitations.” 

“For at least the last five years, they have been systematically auctioning Native American cultural items,” says O’Loughlin. “Even though they’re the same objects, the same sacred items that would be repatriated if they were with a federal agency, if a private person holds them, they’re commercial. So the law is kind of duplicitous—it finds that in certain circumstances these things are worthy of protection but not to end the commercial trafficking of these items.”

O’Loughlin says that indigenous antiquities from all over the world are often sold for “a pretty penny” in the U.S. and internationally in places like France, Germany, England, Scandinavian countries, Austria, and Italy. Yet another auction featuring Native American cultural objects is set to take place in New Jersey soon, she says.

“Everything in Native American studies is dependent on history and understanding the context with which it operates today,” she says. “It was a history of colonization and expansion. As non-natives moved into Indian territories, they often cleared the land, took what was there, took what had been left from communities that had been stricken with disease or had been run out and murdered. They took their cultural items, unearthed their ancestors and burial items. They kept things as souvenirs and began to commercialize these items.”

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

From the Trail of Tears to the Battle of Little Bighorn to the life of Pocahontas, the National Museum of the American Indian aims to tell the full story of Native Americans—the atrocities and indignities alongside the triumphs, accomplishments, and innovations. But the atrocities and indignities have not ceased. So many are ongoing. 

This month the Supreme Court upheld the implementation of a voter ID law in North Dakota that will hold Native Americans back from voting. The law requires voters to provide identification that includes their street address. Native Americans who live rurally or on reservations often instead use P.O. boxes, as some areas lack street addresses. Native Americans, people who are indigenous to the United States, did not get citizenship or the right to vote until 1924. 

Repatriation plays a part in the healing of deep, unending historical wounds. Getting back stolen ancestors and relatives is a step that truly matters on the long walk toward healing.

Herewini says that most museum staffs around the world have shifted to believing in repatriation. The culture has changed, albeit gradually. What he’s noticed since joining Te Papa in 2007 is a move from old school to new school thinking. “That shift usually occurs when there’s a change in the staff, management, and senior leadership within an institution,” he says. “The old school thinking has retired. The new school has a different understanding of the world, a different connection with indigenous communities, and a different connection with how they perceive ancestral remains. It’s that new school thinking that actually is open to the idea of repatriation.”

Burgess says she saw the most pronounced shift in museum culture during the ’80s and ’90s. “I think in the beginning at some museums, it was so different from what was done in the past there was some early resistance,” Burgess says. “I think that quickly faded and now people just understand. When graduate students come out of school now, this is just the landscape where repatriation is the norm.”

Today, the Smithsonian no longer accepts indigenous human remains and no longer displays them—the institution doesn’t even allow photography of remains at this point. But there are still those anthropologists who view the loss of remains and the loss of sacred objects from museums as losses to learning. 

In spring 1988, before the NMAI Act and NAGPRA, City Paper published a cover story about a struggle between the Smithsonian and the Blackfeet tribe of Montana, as well as other tribes, to receive ancestral remains. Smithsonian anthropologist Douglas Ubelaker told City Paper, in reference to remains, “We’re paid to look after them. I’m a curator, and there are well-meaning Indian groups wanting to destroy them, put them in the ground and turn them to dust. There’s an opposition in our positions.” A little more than 30 years later, Ubelaker tells City Paper that he is not available for comment. 

His point of view is not completely gone from museum culture. “We still have some old school people with antiquated ideas in the museum world,” Swift says. “But I would say the new normal is looking at native remains in a much more respectful way, that these are ancestors, these are people who at one time in life had a name, had brothers and sisters and moms and dads.”

Laurie Burgess says that human remains are still important in learning. “We do support research on human remains and we have a very vibrant biological anthropology division here,” she says. “There’s things you can learn from studying remains about health, nutrition, demography, population, that you really can’t learn anywhere else. But it just has to be done in the right context.”

A few years ago, Natural History concluded the long run of Written in Bone, an exhibition that featured the bones of colonists in Jamestown, Virginia and St. Mary’s City, Maryland. “It was wildly popular and completely uncontested because people of Euro-American descent, in general, don’t have an issue with the study of skeletal remains of people of their group,” Burgess says. “It showed the value of the study of human remains. But again this is not from a group without rights, not like people went into an indigenous community and took the remains.” 

Now, it is the Smithsonian’s position that the two ideas can coexist, that scientific study is important and so are the rights of indigenous people. That coexistence is apparent at the National Museum of Natural History. 

O’Loughlin, who is pressing for private individuals and groups, like auction houses, to stop selling and profiting from sacred and cultural items, says indigenous people will hold institutions accountable and seek what was wrongfully taken.

“We’ve always been here,” she says.