Returning American Indian human remains

One of the basic human rights, it seems, is to be able to control the disposition of the remains of your ancestors and relatives. All 50 states in the U.S. have laws controlling and protecting human remains.

American Indians rights to protect their ancestors have not been protected in the United States until very recently. Indian remains were collected by the federal government and numerous educational facilities and universities etc.

Federal laws in 1989, for the Smithsonian system, and in 1990, for any institution that receives federal funding, required investigations by these institutions into the human remains, burial objects, and sacred items of American Indian peoples. The institutions have to categorize these items, publicize their holdings, and return items to identifiable descendants and tribal groups.

Needless to say, this has taken a long time. First, it took five years for the federal government to develop the regulations to enact the 1990 law, The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

The press reported recently on the “Long road home for Indian remains.”

Notwithstanding the 1989 and 1990 laws, as of 2010, the remains of more than 160,000 Indians were still stored at federal agencies and museums that receive public funds.

The Smithsonian Institution estimates that as of Dec., 31, 2010, three-quarters of the Indian human remains it has been able to identify (4,330 out of 5,9800 and nearly half of the funerary objects (99,550 out of 2112,220) have been repatriated.

It could take many more years to return all of the remains.

The Government Accountability Office states that the process of identifying and returning skeletal remains and sacred objects buried with them is handled unevenly across eight federal agencies. When remains are identified, public notification is spotty, and the agencies do a poor job of tracking and reporting their own repatriation efforts, said Anu Mittal, who heads the GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment team.

And none of the agencies the GAO reviewed, including the Smithsonian Institution and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was in full compliance with the laws Congress passed two decades ago, she told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on June 16. Full repatriation “may take several more decades to complete.”

Ted Isham, the historical preservation officer for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma, told the Senate panel that the spirit of the law isn’t being met because tribes “carry almost the full burden” when making claims that the objects and remains belong to them.

Of the 160,000 Native Americans stored at federal agencies and museums, according to the National Park Service, more than 120,000 awaited disposition because they had yet to be linked to a particular tribe, but sadly only about half of the 41,000 whose heritage had been pinpointed had been returned or were in the process.

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