Reclaiming the Ancestors: Indigenous and Black Perspectives on Repatriation, Human Rights, and Justice
Over the last several centuries, Indigenous, Black, and other colonized people’s remains have been turned into objects of study for archaeologists, anthropologists, and other scientists. This can be seen most clearly in the collection of their ancestors, often excavated from cemeteries and burial grounds and taken to museums around the world. Today more than 100,000 Native American ancestral remains are still held in U.S. public museums alone, while an unknown number of remains of people of African descent are stored in museum collections.
What does it mean to turn human beings into artifacts? What happens to the living communities who lose control and ownership over their own ancestors and heritage? In exploring these questions, this panel will discuss how repatriation—the process of reclaiming and returning ancestral and human remains—can address inequality. The discussion will further ask how repatriation might encourage a reckoning with the colonial violence experienced by Native and Black Americans in the past, which still reverberates in the injustices their descendants face today.
Michael Blakey, Ph.D., NEH Professor of Anthropology and American Studies, College of William and Mary
Dorothy Lippert (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma), Ph.D., Tribal Liaison, National Museum of Natural History
Shannon Martin (Gun Lake Pottawatomi/Ojibwe), Director, Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways
Rachel Watkins, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Anthropology, American University
Sonya Atalay (Anishinabe-Ojibwe), Ph.D., Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
The Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology, the Society of Black Archaeologists, the Indigenous Archaeology Collective, the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and SAPIENS.
>> We wish we could be in person as well. First I want to thank everybody for joining us this afternoon for a panel discussion, Reclaiming The Ancestors, Indigenous and Black Perspectives on Repatriation, Human Rights, and Justice. This is a series sponsored by the Indigenous Archaeology Collective, Wenner‑Gren Foundation, SAPIENS, Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies. We gratefully acknowledge The Peabody Institute of Archaeology for supporting our discussion this afternoon.
It looks like we have over 1,000 participants, 1,014 participants right now at 1:05. When we were putting this together, who would have imagined, we could have imagined based upon the last two webinars, the Society of Black Archaeologists has put together. Each panel discussion we’re doing as part of our series will take place the on first Wednesday of the month and will bring together a diverse group of scholars from within and outside of the field.
My name is Sara Gonzalez, I’m an Associate Professor of anthropology at the University of Washington and newly appointed curator of archaeology at the Burke Museum of National History, on the shared waters of land ‑‑ I’m also a co‑founder of the Indigenous Archaeology Collective, a newly formed network of Indigenous and nonindigenous scholars and archaeology and related fields. The collective’s co‑founders are committed to the mentorship of Indigenous archaeologists, Native tribal nations and ethnic peoples, Indigenous epistemologies into heritage management and practice. We advocate for the rights of Indigenous peoples throughout the world as outlined in the United Nations declaration rights of Indigenous peoples. I want to introduce my co‑conspirator of the Indigenous Archaeology Collective, Ora Marek Martinez.
(Speaking language other than English)
>> I just introduced myself to you in the Navajo language. In our traditions we introduce ourselves and our grandparents as a way to establish connections and relationships. And so my mother is Navajo, from the Mountaincoff clan (sounds like), my father was Nez Pierce from northern Idaho, I grew up on the Nez Pierce Reservation in Idaho and live here in Flagstaff Arizona with my family. Because of that, I am a Dine woman.
I am the director of the Native American Cultural Center and an Assistant Professor at the Anthropology Department at Northern Arizona University. And as Sara said, I am also a co‑conspirator of the Indigenous Archaeology Collective. We would like to begin with a land acknowledgment. Although we are in a virtual space, I am centered here in Flagstaff, Arizona (Speaking language other than English) situated next to the San Francisco Peaks.
I would like to recognize the traditional land users of this area. There are at least 13 tribes that maintain connection to this sacred mountain. I recognize and honor their ancestors, past, present and future (Speaking Navajo) we would also like to encourage you to investigate the Indigenous histories and ‑‑ the Indigenous histories. We committed to creating space for Indigenous peoples through mentor shipping, teaching and service. I would also like to observe a moment of silence for all our relatives who have passed, those missing and those awaiting justice in these times, our hearts and prayers remain with these relatives.
Over the last several centuries, Indigenous, Black and other colonized people’s remains have been turned into objects of study for archaeologists, anthropologists and other scientists. This can be seen most clearly in the collection of their ancestors, often excavated from cemeteries and burial grounds and taken to museums across the world. Today, more than 300,000 Native American ancestral remains are still held in U.S. institutions alone. While an unknown number of remains of people of African descent are stored in museum collections.
With the passage of the National Museum of the American Indian act in 1989 and the National ‑‑ excuse me, and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990, Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian peoples had a pathway to repatriating and reburying, who for centuries collected in U.S. settler colonial institutions. 30 years after these laws we see the implications of this legislation, both positive and negative.
As members of the generational of scholars who have always grown up within this important human rights legislation, I would like to say that everything has changed in regards to our discipline’s perspective on repatriation. Certainly many of the buzzwords of archaeology in the 21st century, collaborative and community based archaeology, decolonization, public outreach and civil engagement, reflect a disciplinewide shift towards a more ethically engaged and collaborative approach to archeological practice.
Representative of this shift are the diversity of working relationships and partnerships established between archaeologists and Indigenous nations and descendant communities, and yet 30 years long, new flagship journals like American Antiquity publish research on Indigenous approaches to archaeology, repatriation or the impact of collaborative practice on the theory and method of archaeology.
More troubling, institutions report that at current rates, repatriation under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the National Museum of the American Indian Act will take another 200 years to return all of the ancestors. Many repositories including our former graduate institution UC Berkeley whose Hearst Museum of Anthropologists remain out of compliance, as Indigenous students there and elsewhere remind us, there continue to be more dead Indians on campus than living ones. This stark statements underscores both deepen equities that exist within the academy and how the legacy of looting Indigenous graves continue to impact living communities today.
The institution upholds the letter and spirit of repatriation law in the U.S. is mirrored by the standards of professional organizations, such as the Society for American Archaeology, one of the largest archaeology organizations in the world with 7,000 members. It’s 1986 statement on the treatment of human remains, adopted prior to the passage of repatriation legislation and reratified in 1999, privileges scientific interests over the sovereign and human rights of Indigenous nations. Despite attempts to modify it, the spirit of these words which remain unchanged continue to guide the society’s responses to repatriation related regulations and recognition of Indigenous perspectives within the field.
We witnessed the impact of this statement this past June when the Society of ‑‑ when the President of a Society for American Archaeology authorized and although subsequently subtracted a member’s call to action to oppose the University of California’s draft repatriation policy.
This policy was designed to ensure all UC campuses are in compliance with federal and state repatriation laws.
This prompts us to ask, if we have indeed come so far within a discipline, as a discipline, why do Indigenous peoples and perspectives remain marginalized in archaeology? And how is it despite professions of our ethical commitments to Indigenous and descendant communities that our field still does not explicitly recognize our human rights?
>> SARA GONZALEZ: We stand at a critical juncture within both the field and our wider world. During this current moment of social unrest, we are witnessing the hypervisibility of anti‑black racism in the form of police killings, which have taken the lives of Julian Edward Roosevelt Lewis, Maurice S. Gordon, Sean Reed, Michael Johnson, Donny Sanders , Elijah McClain, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and more recently has left Jacob Lake paralyzed. Simultaneously cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls have called on us to reflect on what it means to recognize the sanctity and value of Black and Indigenous lives.
We have seen this reflection in our own disciplines in the form of Black Lives Matter statements and commitments to anti‑racism and decolonization in archaeology. Such commitments, however, require that we examine, that we collectively examine the structural inequities that society in general and archaeology and anthropology in particular are premised on. At the heart of these inequities is archaeology’s continued assertion of authority and control over the archeological record, a record that in the Americas was by and large created by Indigenous peoples.
Repatriation, the results of decades of Indigenous activism forced archaeology’s reckoning with colonial repatriation of Indigenous lands, bodies, graves and heritage, yet Black ancestors and their belongings have a shared history of theft. You may remember the scene in Black Panther film, he liberates a sacred object from a British museum. We know of a few prominent cases, for example, the University of Pennsylvania recently debated the ethics of a teaching collection which consists in large part of the remains of African descendants whose bodies were looted and collected for scientific study and display.
The Society for American Archaeology’s letter of opposition to University of California repatriation policy was signed and delivered on Juneteenth, symbolizes to us the necessity of considering Black perspectives within dialogues on repatriation. Furthermore, building off the legacy of the Native American Graves Protection Repatriation Act last year, U.S. Congressional Representatives, A. Donald McEachin and Alma Adams introduced the African‑American Burial Ground Network Act, proposed legislation endorsed by the Society of historical archaeology and other heritage organizations calls for Congress to identify and protect historic African American cemeteries. These sacred sites are particularly vulnerable to the processes of urban renewal and gentrification, proliferating around the country. While there are differences in sovereign status in Black and Indigenous in U.S., violence in appropriation extend across these statuses.
The Indigenous archaeology collective is thus proud to be partnering with the Society of Black Archaeologists on a series of dialogues that examine the contribution of Black and Indigenous theory and me odd in archaeology. Over the course of the fall, winter and spring of 2021 we’ll be holding monthly dialogues that encourage us to imagine a different future for archaeology, one where Indigenous and Black rights are essential concern and where archaeology’s protection of the past is motivated by care for these communities.
Beginning with today’s discussion on reclaiming the ancestors, we ask, what does it look like when we hold space with and for one another? And how can we acknowledge the differences in our histories while understanding the shared processes and experiences that continue to deny the fundamental rights of Black and Indigenous communities today?
I would like to now invite Dr. Ayana, professor of anthropology at UC Riverside and co‑purchase of Black archaeologists to introduce our panelists this afternoon.
>> Thank you so much, Sara and Ora for those powerful words. I would like to start by introducing our moderator, Dr. Sonya Atalay, Associate Professor at the University of Massachusetts. She’s an archaeologist who works in partnership with Native nations to carry out community design research projects.
She’s co‑authored a series of research based comments about the repatriation of Native American ancestral remains, return of sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony under the Native American Graves Repatriation and Protection Act, which can be downloaded for free online. Dr. Atalay served seven years on the National Review Committee that oversees compliance with federal NAGPRA law and has written about healing and historic healing from historic trauma that can come from repatriation. She’s currently writing a book called Braiding Knowledge which looks at how Indigenous knowledge systems are challenging and changing universities and other institutions. Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Atalay.
Our illustrious panelists today include Dr. Michael Blakey, National Endowment for the Humanities Professor and founding director of the Institute for Historical Biology at the College of William and Mary. Dr. Blakey was a key advisor of the award‑winning Race, Are We So Different exhibition of the American Anthropological Association, where he served several offices including President of the Association of Black Anthropologists, from 1987 through 1989, and member and he’s also a member of the Editorial Board of the American Anthropologists from 2012 to 2016. Blakey represented the United States on the Council of the Fourth World Archeological Conference in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1999. He’s a member of the Scholarly Advisory Committee of the National Museum of History and curator of the Smithsonian Institute where he previously held the position of research associate in physical anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History from 1985 to 1994.
He was the Scientific Director of the New York African Burial Ground Project from 1992 to 2009, the most extensive bioarcheological project in the United States. The Manhattan site became a U.S. national monument in 2007.
Next, we have Shannon Martin. Shannon Martin is an enrolled citizen of the Potawatomie Ojibwe Gun Lake and late descendant Chippewa. Director of the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways, American Indian Museum. Shannon leads a team that addresses cultural and historic preservation, repatriation and reburial of ancestral remains, artistic expression and promotion, tribal collections and archival conservation, cultural resource management, exhibit development, protection of intellectual property and stewardship of the Chippewa tribal cemeteries burial grounds, historic preservations and sacred sites. She began her tenure with the Ziibiwing Center in December 2001 and as research specialist in cultural research development manager. The Ziibiwing Center also houses a Research Center and Ojibwe language immersion room, changing exhibit gallery, tribal collection and archive storage, gift shop and meeting rooms.
Shannon became the director in November 2007. Shannon also serves on the advisory council for the RC McNichols Center for American Indian and Indigenous studies at the Newbury Library and is on the Research Advisory Council for the National Native American Boarding School Healing coalition.
Next, we have Dr. Rachel Watkins, an Associate Professor at the American University, a biocultural anthropologist whose work focuses on African American biohistory and social history, skeletal biology, racial formations, and American biological anthropology and Black feminist critiques of science. Additionally, Dr. Watkins work on the New York African Burial Ground Project as a research team member.
And last but certainly not least, we have Dr. Dorothy Lippert, who is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, she received her BA from Rice University and her MA and Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. Lippert has also worked as an archaeologist in the repatriation office of the National Museum of Natural History Smithsonian institution since 2001.
She responds to repatriation requests from U.S. tribes for human remains, funeral remains, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony according to the provisions of the Natural Museum of the American Indian Act and has responsibility for repatriation requests from tribes in the U.S. Southeast, Southwest, and parts of Alaska. Beginning in 2011 she was appointed for two terms by President Obama to the advisory council on historic preservation, serving as an expert member and vice‑chair of the committee on Native American affairs. Before I hand it over to Dr. Atalay, I want to cover a few housekeeping rules.
Closed captioning is available at the bottom of the screen.
Audience members are able to type their questions into the Q & A section, as many of you already have. If you would like a question, you can uptick it by pressing the thumbs up button. Questions that are upticked will raise to the top of the list and as time permits these questions will be addressed by panelists. So we encourage all 1,014 of you to please utilize the Q & A section and post your questions.
And without further ado, Dr. Atalay.
>> SONYA ATALAY: (Speaking language other than English) I greet you in my Indigenous language.
(Speaking language other than English).
I’ve shared my spirit name, my tribal affiliation, and my clan, and then I’m a first agreement. I’m with you today from Amhurst, Massachusetts, the traditional homelands of the (?) nation and communities. I know a great deal of work goes into planning and tech support for these webinars, so sincere thanks to the organizers, the Indigenous Archaeology Collective and the Society of Black Archaeologists and the sponsors, The Peabody Institute of Archaeology, Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies, Wenner‑Gren and SAPIENS. I want to welcome our panelists and thank them for sharing their time with all of us today. And a warm welcome to all of you who will here to join the conversation.
To get us started, I would like to consider, it’s a really broad question about repatriation, ancestral remains, and museum and University collections. I think it’s helpful to reflect on how we come to, how we’ve come to the place where we’re at right now, so that we can understand where we are and most importantly, so we can more clearly see paths forward to design, create, and dream better futures into existence.
So my first question, as we heard in the opening remarks, some of the large numbers of ancestral remains that are in museums currently.
Those are only the estimates for Native Americans and only in the U.S. We don’t even have a clear scope of the number for African American ancestors that are in museums. So ill like to ask each of you, why are there still so many Black and brown bodies in museums and institutions, particularly when the field of archaeology and museums are by far predominantly white institutions with very few scholars who are Black or Indigenous or people of color? Rachel, I’ll start with you. Can you kind of give us some of your insights or the primary reasons that you see for this?
>> RACHEL WATKINS: Yes, hi, good evening, or afternoon. Thanks for inviting me to be a part of this important discussion.
He would start off by saying it’s a matter of epistemological legacy. Western science as an extension of, you know, western knowledge creation is largely about, among other things, racial ordering and racial ordering according to or in relation to a human standard that puts people who are not white, cis, hetero, able‑bodied on the margins.
So the people’s remains who are in laboratories and in institutions reflect being on those margins and being on those margins, yeah. So by extension, Western science and Western knowledge also racially order what roles that different groups of people play in the production of knowledge relative to where they are in the center of the margins.
So given that legacy, I think that’s a large part of the reason why there’s still so few folks of color in archaeology and biological anthropology in particular.
>> SONYA ATALAY: Michael, I will turn to you to answer the question next, and I’ll just add that I know in your work, you’ve raised issues of power and who has decision‑making authority and power over these remains. So I think that’s an essential question that shows there’s more complexity than a straightforward mandate for repatriation.
So could you speak to that issue more about the model that you put forward and your views on the issue power in relation to this question?
>> MICHAEL BLAKEY: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
I did want to say one thing about this previous comment that I agree with completely, you know, that may segway into the question of power, which I think is really the most fundamental question.
That the African American remains and African remains at museums, national and University museums, unknown to me the actual number. I imagine there are many hundreds, not in any way equivalent to Native American remains, I think they are often off the radar for African Americans.
What is on the radar are cemeteries, in their defense.
What’s also on the radar and has been for a long time is African American’s ability to tell their own story, to be a part of historiography and at the end of the 19th century and throughout the history of the U.S. until, so the end of the Second World War, white people did not write about African American history.
African Americans were represented as these objectified, sort of natural racial categories in places like the Smithsonian or the American museum of natural history.
People without a history.
While certainly you see some of this in the 19th century, some of the earliest real ethnography in the U.S. was written by African Americans, and the boys rights, the first urban ethnography in 1989 but then we get Woodson’s organization, Journal of Negro History which becomes the first organ for the publication of African American history.
So it expands.
They are also the site of Negro history week, I think that was around 1918, no, the journal was 1918, 1923 the journal for negro history week. We are seeing the legacies for that which expanded after the Second World War. For African Americans it’s largely been a question of being able to tell their own story, defending their cemeteries, in a kind of opposition to their objectification and naturalization in the white story of nature and their placement below the sentient cultural, you know, homosapiens, the whites who characterize, you know, if you look at the first use of the term “Caucasian” by Blumenbach, it was to establish whites as the natural normal Adamic true human being.
So all these others, Native Americans, Africans and Asians were from that period at the turn of the 19th century seen as a degenerate form of the same species and increasingly by the end of that century not the same species at all with white people.
Thus conveying their continued notion of sort of the sole entitlement to the fruits of nature.
But I think I could talk more about power when we discuss repatriation. I don’t know if you would like me to start, shift more to that now, Sonya?
I’ve already said quite a bit.
>> SONYA ATALAY: Yeah, we’ll have a chance to get to it for sure, so I think power is going to be woven throughout much of our conversation today.
So feel free to chime in on that where you feel that’s appropriate.
And I’ll just add that we do want this to be more like a conversation than just Q & A, so to all the panelists, please feel free at any point to kind of add in your thoughts to any of these questions at any point.
So with that, Shannon or Dorothy, did you want to kind of respond at all to that kind first opening question, either about the issues of power or just, you know, that broad question of why it is that we’re at this point, where there’s still so many brown and Black bodies in museums?
>> SHANNON MARTIN: (Speaking language other than English).
(Speaking language other than English).
Sonya and all the attendees, simply put, we are just seen as subhuman. We’ve always been seen as subhuman, salvage archaeology during the time of conquest of this country placed us in that category.
And that is why we see so many of our ancestral remains spread across this country and shipped overseas where the numbers are unknown.
You know, still to this day when we complete repatriations with some of these institutions, they’re still finding more of our ancestors as they’re digging through teaching collections and shelves and offices and closets. So these numbers are continuing to increase even though, you know, after 30 years of NAGPRA when these institutions were held to a standard and a law of compliance, to this day, more and more ancestor ares are turning up.
One of the hardest repatriations here, the Saginaw repatriation, speaks to the subhuman category and label of our people during the time of phrenology and cranium studies, we had to retrieve seven of our ancestral skulls from the Toledo Zoo.
Those are some federal agencies and repositories that we need to look at still.
That may not know they have to be in compliance and they don’t know what they have.
Our ancestors’ skulls were traded to the zoo and we were able to find that out through an old file at one of the institutions that we were repatriating from.
So, you know, it’s difficult work.
And the work is by far not complete.
Especially for Native Americans under the NAGPRA Act. And I truly feel for my Black brothers and sisters because as we go to these repositories and institutions we’re seeing their ancestors in boxes on shelves. So I’m so happy that this conversation is happening because we as Native American tribes and communities will be able to greatly assist in the repatriation of their ancestors.
>> SONYA ATALAY: Thank you. Dorothy?
>> DOROTHY LIPPERT: Thinking about all that, it really made me think about some of the teaching collections at Smithsonian because those are comprised of groups of people who we’ve got two major collections, the Huntington collection, the Terry Collection, and those are the remains of people who died, they were impoverished, they died in a hospital, they didn’t have relatives who could claim their bodies, and they were sent to anatomy labs and their remains wound up collected by medical doctors who thought that making a collection of remains would help in the scientific process.
And by and large, it’s exactly the people who were powerless, who wound up in those major collections. You know, they didn’t have the money to ‑‑ their relatives didn’t have the money to come and claim them for burial. They didn’t have the money to be treated for health conditions, and, you know, that led them to die in the hospital. Maybe their lives were such that they didn’t have money for food or housing, but anyway, led to them dying and not being given a burial by their relatives. And then one thing led to another, and they wound up in the collections of the museum.
For the Native American remains, there were tribes that were very powerful at the time that the remains were being collected, and the collectors knew that they didn’t ‑‑ knew that the tribes didn’t want their remains to be removed from burial sites, and people would go around and they would hide what they were doing, you know, and I read so many accounts from all over the United States where an army surgeon or, you know, somebody who was studying birds would just decide to make a little side trip and collect some human remains because he could, but he knew that it wasn’t something that would have been sanctioned by the community, you know, so he had it in his mind that, well, this is the proper thing to do as a scientist. How, I know that the community wouldn’t appreciate this.
There are many reasons, there are many ways that the remains came to be in the museum’s collection, and then I guess there are just as many stories about why it’s hard to link those remains with their home communities sometimes.
>> SONYA ATALAY: Thanks. So I would like to have us think for a minute about the treatment and care of ancestral remains, turn our focus to spaces of interconnectivity that exist in the treatment of Native American and African American ancestral remains and also spaces of difference where they exist and with remains of, for example, white or EuroAmericans in museums. Many of the ancestral remains in museums and universities were collected as part of eugenics research, it was the science of the time to try to demonstrate Europeans’ superiority and many Native, Indigenous and Black ancestral remains were collected and researched with this goal in mind.
So how do we address the legacies of the men and they were nearly all white men, who were engaged in this pseudoscience work? And what can be done to raise awareness of the connection of these remains with eugenics and to address the harms from the treatment of these remains, those of us who have been in these museum spaces, we know that many of these were very horrifically treated during these studies, and their return to communities can also inflict real harm and trauma to receive remains in this condition, knowing the treatment they endured and what they were used for.
So Rachel, I’ll start with you on this, and then other panelists, please also share your thoughts.
>> RACHEL WATKINS: Well, to answer this question, you definitely have to talk about power again. I think one of the key ways to address this is to continue working toward destabilizing the power dynamic that naturalizes, you know, people of European descent, playing the role of knowledge producers, while people who are on racial and other margins are naturalized as research subjects.
And it isn’t just about the practice of the science itself, but also recognizing, and I think this is where the New York African burial grounds serves as a really important model, for having community, for bringing communities into the knowledge creation process.
So part of destabilizing the power dynamic isn’t just about having more people of color participating in reproducing western knowledge in the orders upon which it relies, but to actually kind of destabilize the knowledge production process as it stands. And that’s where communities come in. And us being accountable to and working with communities to tell these stories.
>> MICHAEL BLAKEY: You know, with that, you remind me of the Cobb Collection. The collection that the great African American physical anthropologist Cobb created at Howard University. And though he about 700 individuals who were unclaimed from hospitals and prison, like the Terry Collection, I think the Huntington collection were Ellis Island, the Ellis Island immigrants.
But who are not claimed or maybe it was whose families were not so empowered to claim the dead, Cobb used to say that there were very few Chinese among them because the Chinese would show up one way or another.
But he would say, he said that he put this collection together for a contribution, not defense, but I don’t think one can really believe that, in looking at the scope of his work and activist, civil rights activist, head of the NAACP at one point, I think it was a politic way of saying we need a collection to combat this racism with we need the power of the evidence, and you see his work on race and runners, for example, where he’s measured Jesse Owens’ leg, then he goes to his collection and look at and then generalizes to show that race has nothing to do with his running ability, it was his training and his discipline. This kind of thing.
So I see, Rachel, you know, that introduces a certain kind of perhaps political messiness we need to discuss, but understanding that his intent was to get hold of the power to counter the eugenics ‑‑ the eugenist. It’s also, I think perhaps, Dorothy, you know better than I, perhaps most of the African American remains at the Smithsonian are in the Terry Collection, 1600 individuals from St. Louis.
And Alice Herdlishia who organized everything there until the Second World War was an avid eugenicist, he was very clear that eugenics was simply the application of the major theory, theory from the west and Germany, it supported racial segregation here.
I’m sure we could go through other policies that are important.
Out of that, those collections, however, perhaps after the war mostly when eugenics became taboo, though biodeterminism, the biodeterministic imagination continues, but racial eugenics became taboo, those collections were used increasingly for determining methods for creating methods for determining age, sex, population affiliation, so there may be 35 indicators of age and maybe similar number for determining whether an individual was male or female, and then indicators for their ‑‑ initially it was race, but later population affiliation, that are required actually to assess either archeological skeletons, to know the demography of past populations from skeletons, or to identify human remains as a forensics scientist. So these are, you know, I think that is part of the history of the spinoffs of those collections.
But they represent the poorest of the poor. They demonstrate their powerlessness.
Today most anatomical cadavers for dissection are donated, and I understand that there are strict rules governing, you know, verifying those donations, and they may still be people who died in prison, that kind of thing.
I don’t know how much of that absolutely to believe, but I know there is a ‑‑ there are stronger rules about that.
I’m looking at also the fact that there are increasingly good ‑‑ while there are increasingly good synthetic means of creating a cadaver, I saw something recently that was amazingly good plastic, a synthetic cadaver, one does ‑‑ that might work, but I wouldn’t want someone to operate on me who had not dissected the human body one way or another.
So we’re looking also, if we go back far enough, there was a time, Leonardo and Sarvadia where Raul Bartholomao in inquisition sought to prevent him from dissecting the human body, there were times where those were done in the dark.
So we have a dilemma, I think, when it comes to cadavers. That perhaps synthetics will resolve it. Real donation might resolve.
But the Terry Collection, the Cobb, and the Hammond Todd Collection in Cleveland museum are derived from the poorest of the poor.
>> RACHEL WATKINS: One of the things that I would like to see happen with anatomical collections is some sort of engagement around anatomical collections, somewhat similar to what is associated with burial grounds or repatriation, and I think it’s important for the reasons that Michael mentioned and because of these epistemological legacies, it’s indeed the case that we can’t necessarily match individuals in anatomical collections with relatives, even though it’s highly likely, based on the dating of some of these collections, that relatives are certainly around, and I believe Shannon mentioned and Sonya, you too mentioned the pain associated with kind of coming into contact or being in connection with those remains based on the stories.
But I do think it’s worth it to consider how we might make communities aware of these collections, like Michael said, I mean, they’re largely unknown to many of us, and communities have no idea. Most people in Washington, D.C. don’t know that the Cobb Collection, let alone Huntington or Terry. So I think that’s something in the context of power that we need to think about.
>> SHANNON MARTIN: You know, one of the other issues that we need to think about, and you addressed, we addressed historical cemeteries earlier, but the American Indian boarding schools that were all over this country were essentially child labor work camps. Many of those children died while in the care, the quote, unquote, care of these schools.
We have one right here in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, that is now owned by the tribe, eight acres of the former site, and what we’re trying to rectify now is that we have discovered that there are over 227 deaths attributed to the school, over its 41 years of operation.
And we have found evidence of these deaths through newspaper articles, through church records.
However, the final resting place for these children is unknown. So we are conducting noninvasive archeological investigations on the site to try to find a mass grave or an unmarked burial ground, but this is happening across the country where tribes are now having to grapple with this situation and to try to repatriate return to the families and origin of these children. We’re watching what’s happening down at the Florida School for Boys, that cemetery, so some of these reform schools and homes that were for poor children, we need to take a look at those historic sites as well.
>> MICHAEL BLAKEY: There is a site in Florida at the University of south Florida is working with, I think it’s called the Doswell Reformatory, that was a segregated Black and white reform school, where there were many mysterious deaths. They are also involved in a kind of public engagement of the kind that I’ve been working with. It’s really a very moving story of where the now grown older inmates constitute a community and want to look back and answer the questions about the young people who disappeared when they were children. So for that, yes, archaeology and skeletal biology is occasionally useful as well.
>> SONYA ATALAY: I would like to have us turn here toward thinking about education and public awareness. So as we take down statues and topple monuments on campuses and in towns and in cities outside the country, including outside and even inside, those inside of museums, I’m wondering what you think in term of how do we get universities, institutions and the public to turn their gaze inside those buildings, to think about the remains that are inside on the shelves of these places and the care and complexity that’s needed to properly address the issue of repatriating them?
So how can we get folks to see the connection and examine the practices of collection and study of Black and brown bodies and the violence and honestly the trauma that that’s caused for present day communities. Just thinking about public awareness. When I talk about this to students, they’re always surprised to learn that there are, you know, that our institution has human remains.
Same thing with the public.
And people do seem very concerned and do want to know, and I would love to hear your thoughts on how we can kind of share information about this and raise people’s awareness.
>> DOROTHY LIPPERT: I think it’s, in some ways it’s kind of similar to the way that public education is taking place around, you know, many historical sites, like Mount Vernon or Monitello or anywhere basically, where people are suddenly now finally being educated about, well, how did that, you know, how did that all run? Like who did all the work to make that, you know, to build that building? You know, that structure didn’t just suddenly appear.
There were human beings that were forced to create those places.
And I think it’s very similar with universities and museums and institutions, where the collections are, you know, and the reputation, the museum, a collection of objects of antiquity, the items under a category this is something that belongs in a museum.
These institutions are built on Native American people, you know, they’re built with our bodies, they’re built with our lives, with our culture, our stories, our items. You know, those ‑‑ I spent almost 20 years at the Smithsonian and I’ve seen how all of the collections come in, and they come in different ways, not just straightforward archeological excavation or not just the army surgeons collecting remains, but, you know, sometimes it’s just a single individual who decides that they’re going to go disturb a grave site and then remove remains or objects and send them to the museum because in their mind, the museum was the proper place for that person and for their possessions.
So we kind of need to start with this fundamental shift in our thinking about what is this, you know, what is a museum, what is a University? They’re places to teach, you know, for people to go to learn, to research, to mu our human understanding of the world forward, but there’s this essential component to them that we need to acknowledge just in the same way historic sites are acknowledging all of the assets that went into producing them.
>> MICHAEL BLAKEY: If I understand correctly, Dorothy, you’re talking about the sort of massive influence on how we understand our society and ourselves that museums and education convey. And maybe you’re pointing out at least what it reminds me of, and that is that it’s soaked in whiteness and soaked with a sense of the need to justify even still an entitlement to the land and to the wealth, you know.
The land did not belong to Europeans.
The wealth, whether it was Monticello or Montpelier was built by Africans and based on horticultural knowledge, i.e., tobacco, which came to simply mean money by the 17th and 18th centuries, it was the measure of money. But it’s the measure of African labor and something that represents again what they found at Jamestown, they were looking for gold, they didn’t find goal, they found a drug trade. Then from that later a cotton trade.
And one of the things of particular interest to me lately in working with descendant communities, empowerment, is James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange, Virginia, where we developed with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a new rubric that gives descendant communities power, not just over remains, but really over the whole story, you know, over how the story of slavery, for example, will be told. And right now even in the place where this rubric was created and catalyzed in 2018, they are struggling with the chair of the board who, as I think of, again, these continuing entitled whiteness is an occupier still.
I think there is an occupier kind of culture here created early and continuing, and it’s manifested in so many ways. It’s manifested in the education we do not get about Native American and African and African American history, we have the occupiers story as told by himself, and in the characterization of the Other in these naturalized objectified ways.
But in terms of the struggle for history, I hope that we will ‑‑ I see folks looking for it being an ancestry, and I say will you know what ‑‑ if you find out that you’re Fullah or you discover that you’re Wallaf or Shawnee, do you know what that is? Do you know anything about that, do you have any context for understanding the history of these folks? Where our public education fails us completely with all of that part of the story.
When it comes to also specific, you know, another element beyond the educational system, the struggles over cemeteries and African Americans are struggling. I’m advising five or six cases right now where they are struggling, like at Montpelier which should have been empowered already, struggling to have control over their cemeteries and sites. But I will give one example a repatriation, it’s very recent, to show how this kind of thing plays out. The medical College of Virginia had, from the 1840s on, robbed graves, usually of enslaved people in Richmond, and they would advertise for their medical college that they had special access to anatomical specimens, that special access was slavery that allowed them, it was illegal in Richmond, but the local authorities and the state authorities looked the other way as generations of white medical students dissected these remains, which were then dumped in a dry well. Mid 1990s, archaeology is being done for a building on that site in the new Virginia Commonwealth University, and they run into the well.
And all those remains. And the then‑President of the University stops the archaeology as quickly as possible, basically covers it up, and as is the custom of the Virginia department of historic resources, they send the remains immediately to our colleague Doug Allisley at the Natural History Museum, where they disappear from view.
Later, I guess about ten years ago, Shawn Utsey, an African‑American studies professor who also was involved in film, wrote a film about this.
And they began then the community began to see that those remains were in Washington and to call for their return. They used a process similar to the African burial ground in which the community has the right to determine the disposition of their ancestral remains, among other things in that model, and I think it was just last year brought those remains back, and the Virginia Commonwealth University is helping them memorialize it. So that’s a story, I think, for us.
>> DOROTHY LIPPERT: And just to connect with that, when that process was going on, one of the people involved with it reach out to me to talk about, you know, what their group learned about the repatriation process, you know, what in my experience might help them. So I walked them through what all our office did and talked a little bit about what, you know, the kind of commonalities that tribal people had with repatriation practices, things that people had asked for, such as caring for the remains while they’re in the building, did they want them covered, did they want them, you know, kept in a certain direction or other concepts like that and then told them things about what they might ask for, did they want records, did they want, you know, descriptions, did they want this or that, you know, how did they want the ‑‑ they might consider what they wanted the room set up to be like when they came to accept the remains to return.
So it was a really great conversation to have because the person didn’t have an idea about how this might go, so I just shared how things had gone for Native repatriation, and then when they actually did the return, he invited me to come down and say hello to everyone, and I did, and it was really a good experience.
>> RACHEL WATKINS: Can I add just something quick? In listening to Michael and Dorothy, I’m also thinking about situations in which some sort of ending, like the ones that they’re talking about, are not possible, and this also goes back to what Dorothy said about, you know, what is a University and us being in positions of posing the question to universities. You know, what kind of University do you want to be? What kind of institution do you want to be? So with that said, I think it’s really important to repatriation, that these struggles become a part of humanities education, become a part of liberal arts education at universities and colleges. And I know that there are some that are doing that.
I know that there are some universities, I think at Howard and maybe at Spellman where the freshman or first year class goes to visit the New York African burial ground or different sites, so this should be a fundamental part of humanities and liberal arts education.
>> SONYA ATALAY: Absolutely. And added to the curriculum, and I’ve had experience myself where you can do kind of project learning where ‑‑ project based learning where students in my archaeology class for example did a project for national NAGPRA that they needed done, so I think there’s ways to incorporate this exactly as you’re saying, Rachel.
>> SHANNON MARTIN: We need to keep an eye on these institutions that are on the top ten list, that are reluctant and retentive and move as slow as molasses. You know, it’s 30 years since NAGPRA passed, and when we see an institution like the American museum of natural history in New York City, you know, they removed the Theodore Roosevelt statue thinking oh, that will appease, you know, our American Indian patrons and tribal peoples. But they still have over 2000 ancestral remains still housed within the walls. So it gets to a point where with some of the most notorious institutions that are reluctant and are retentive in holding our ancestors still captive, we have to get fierce, and we have to work together.
And that’s what happened at the University of Michigan. The tribes here in Michigan banded together and staged a protest with students, with faculty and staff at both University of Michigan and eastern Michigan University, they built a formidable alliance to start putting, applying pressure and publicly humiliating the University for what they were doing and their noncompliance.
We spoke to the Board of Regents and addressed them, and after that within about three or four months, the script was flipped with the University of Michigan. So from going from the most contentious relationship with tribal peoples, we’re in an absolute I guess love affair with them. I mean, we’re doing some great work and restorative education and restorative justice work with the University of Michigan today.
>> SONYA ATALAY: Yeah, I was actually going to ask you to speak, Shannon, about the activism. Thanks for doing that. The activism that brought about change. How do we go about changing these institutions?
I guess I’ll ask a question related to that, which is for students I know I’m seeing over 1,000 or so people online watching, students, administrators and faculty who are all watching, what can they do now, today? I always start when people ask me that question, I always start by saying, I have a simple question back, which is, how many ancestral remains does your University have?
How many sacred objects, objects of cultural patrimony? Start there. If you can’t answer that question, then start asking, find out, that’s a place to begin, to just know, you know, how many ancestral remains are at your institution, where are they stored, how did they come to be there? Start asking those questions.
That’s the advice I kind of start with, and I wonder for all of you kind of what would you suggest? And where do people begin, for folks who want to begin, institutions who want to begin doing repatriation?
And including those outside the U.S. that don’t have NAG for law, we could see NAG potential as a starting point, but what do you suggest there, how to begin the process? What are your suggestions?
>> MICHAEL BLAKEY: I have one example of the African American Burial Ground Network Act, which was proposed last year, it’s been sitting in the same place on the floor of Congress for over a year.
I’m not sure what has stalled it. It does not speak to repatriation, from my reading, but to the protection of cemeteries. Well, that’s something. So it’s a bill on the floor, it has been proposed, it hasn’t gone through any of the House or the Senate, so perhaps support for that, call your congressman or Congresswoman to support it.
>> SONYA ATALAY: Any other advice or suggestions that you would give?
>> DOROTHY LIPPERT: It really is just like you said, to find out what are the collections, like how many Native American remains you have, how many objects you have. We always have a hard time, someone asks us, how many sacred objects are in the collections? Because we don’t ‑‑ we are not members of the tribes really and we don’t have those religious practices, so we can’t say something is sacred and something is not sacred. Tribes are the experts when it comes to, well, tribes the experts.
But we do know what objects we have. We can generate lists. We can do queries of databases and tribes that ask us, you know, do you have remains from our community, you know, we can search in a number of ways and figure out what our holdings are. So a University may say, well, we don’t know, we don’t know, but if somebody says we don’t know, then say, okay, we’ll start with what you do know. How many remains do you have? You know. Total. And then we’ll start narrowing it down from there, because that’s one of the things about collections is sometimes the data is a little bit messed up.
So we have to go through and look at all of the information to figure out does this really mean what it says? Sometimes people put things into the catalog that were inaccurate or they just made an error somehow.
And for someone who wants to push on repatriation, start with like you said, start with the big question, how many Native remains do you have? We don’t know. How many remains do you have? How many objects do you have? How many objects from North America do you have?
There’s definitely a place to begin.
>> RACHEL WATKINS: And sometimes, unfortunately, I mean, these things are so hidden at some institutions, that sometimes it starts with the institution beginning to explore the ways in which it’s connected to enslavement, settler colonialism and things that have happened and kind of digging into the intellectual history or the personnel history of the institution and having to, you know, kind of trace your way back to where things may be in closets or, you know, in hidden spaces on campuses.
So there’s also that to consider too. All that to say for some institutions starting with that question can be an out, and so you have to kind of start them, start at the point where you hole them accountable for doing an engaged kind of dive into the history of the institution.
>> SONYA ATALAY: That speaks also Dorothy what you raised and what you’re speaking to Rachel, about the need for institutions to make the data that they have in terms of their collections available online. Right? Because I know some institutions have done that and have done that difficult work, but that’s a really important way that people can first access to even know what’s there. And in many cases, as you say, institutions may not even know. So I wanted to ask you, Shannon, what kinds of strategies you’ve used in terms of finding out, you mentioned I think it was the Toledo Zoo, what other kinds of strategies you’ve used to find out where ancestors are held and kind of if you have any advice on that front for folks who are looking.
>> SHANNON MARTIN: Yeah. We have found that historical societies also have some of our ancestral remains, objects of cultural patrimony and sacred objects, and many of these historical societies, they’re not subject to NAGPRA law, a lot of them are run by local folks in the County, but when you can build relationships with people and work with them, generally they will be happy to share with you what they have because they do want these things to go back to the descendant communities.
For the most part, the historical societies that the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan has worked with, has repatriated back to us.
And some of the objects that they repatriated were directly connected to a NAGPRA‑eligible collection at one of the universities.
So we were able to reintegrate objects from a historical society here in Michigan back with the ancestors when we repatriated them from the University.
So I would encourage people to, you know, build relationships with historical societies, some states have avocational and vocational archeological societies and have different chapters. We have found that we’ve been building alliances and make making friends with those folks too. That helps tribal communities well into the future, because as more people know about inadvertent discoveries and about, you know, finding things on the surface of the ground, they’re calling tribes now.
Even private citizens are calling local tribes and they know to report any type of discovery to a local law enforcement agency, and then tribes are immediately called and are working with these agencies.
So, you know, our ancestors are spread in places that we have no idea, and as far as public education, you know, if we can continue to have these types of conversations, if tribes continue to repatriate and allow opportunity for the public to participate, and if universities and institutions continue to hold classes and provide opportunity for ethics and human rights when it comes to repatriation ancestral remains, that’s a whole new cadre of young people who are going to go out into their communities and keep these conversations going.
>> SONYA ATALAY: Thank you, that reminds me of just the University of Michigan having a Michigama, secret societies having sacred objects, dental schools, medical schools, places that you may not expect or think and even institutions have no idea that these remains and Native belongings or other belongings are there.
>> SHANNON MARTIN: Long established zoos and zoological societies have our remains, our ancestral skulls, some of them do.
>> MICHAEL BLAKEY: You know, there’s another dimension to this that occurs to me and I engage in the study of skeletal remains, for 30 years, I only do it when I have permission of the descendant community and as we developed in New York the idea of the clientage model in which we work for the community most affect and had try to answer the questions that they want us to answer and don’t work unless they say we can. But die this work and I remember going to the American museum of natural history and needing to make comparisons if possible with Dutch and English and asked what collections do they have with Dutch and English, and they had one white guy. In the American museum of natural history, they had one white guy, they toll us. So they had a fairly large collection, I don’t know, maybe a couple hundred Africans. But here is the issue I really want to get to.
Looking at the hundreds of thousands of remains and knowing something about the work that is done, the vast majority of those remains are untouched. They have probably little scientific value and whether they do or not, there are not enough folks prepared to study them.
So under any conditions.
So why are they there?
Sort of store housed.
And I imagine the idea is that, well, we don’t know, we might one day have a research question that will require this collection. And they’ve been saying that maybe for 100 years.
The other side of it is I wonder, you know, Dorothy, you have a whole repatriation office, and are communities in some ways resistant to taking these remains?
Or what is slowing it down in the practical day to day that you see, slowing down repatriation?
>> DOROTHY LIPPERT: Sure. Two things.
Well, there are a large number of issues. The first issue is yes, we have a repatriation office, but we have two people that are working full‑time on writing the repatriation report, and we have two people that are full‑time in the osteology lab that gather ‑‑ we conduct nondestructive documentation of the remains, so we know what remains are present, and we can identify, you know, we can provide identification as much as possible of the remains. So the male or female, that kind of thing. So we’ll have a number of contractors coming in and out at various times to do various work, but it’s a small office relative to the size of the collection that we are examining. That slows us down. We sometimes have museum technicians that work with us, but we haven’t ‑‑ you know, we’re part of the federal government, our hired process is challenging at times, so we haven’t had a museum tech for the last three years or so.
Just members and bureaucracy and our process is very in depth and thorough and goes through many different levels of the museum hierarchy to make sure that the museum examines the evidence and makes recommendations, small numbers of us doing the work, there’s a process for getting the repatriations approved, there’s just built‑in time, takes time. The second thing with regard to communities, there are a number of repatriation cases where a community is not in a position to repatriate from us, and so, you know, that can be for any number of reasons. Some communities have chosen not to repatriate at this time and they ask that we continue to hold the objects at the museum, they’ve entered into a cooperative agreement with us for that to happen.
And they tell us what does and does not happen regarding those objects that are theirs.
But they just do not have the capacity to do what they need to do with those at this time.
So they’ve agreed to have them stay at the museum.
The second thing that I see happening is tribes sometimes, repatriation is expensive financially, emotionally, spiritually, there is so much that goes into a repatriation, and it can be, well, on the one hand it’s a good thing, on the other hand, it can be quite traumatic.
So people will need to make sure that they are in a good position to handle the business of the repatriation.
Just knowing what I know about some communities, they’re not at that point right now. So we keep in touch, and we await their decision when they come that they are ready to repatriate the need, we do our part on the end. But it’s something just to keep in mind that it’s not an easy ‑‑ it’s not a simple thing, you know, repatriate. It’s not like you call somebody up and they show up, you know, the next week and go home and rebury and everything is good. It’s a difficult thing to do.
>> SONYA ATALAY: Thanks, Dorothy. I’m looking over at the Q & A and I know we want to get to some of those questions. Before we do, I have one more question before we move on to some of those audience questions, and that’s about possibly. So just thinking about if there are good policies of institutions that you know of that you would recommend, you know, what are good examples ‑‑ what are institutions that you see out there, obviously we have NAGPRA law, obviously guidelines in terms of how they’ll go about doing the work of NAGPRA law. Which institutions have developed stellar repatriation policies?
For the folks listening, are there good models that they can look at? And also thinking about kind of thinking of policies that are in there, I’m also wondering if there are contexts in which those policies might talk about how to ethically bring more human remains into institutions? I ask this because this is a question I often get asked.
In some discussions with scholars I’ve heard that researchers want and talk about wanting more bodies for research and for teaching purposes.
For example, I’m aware of suggestions that we order more remains from, for example, China or southeast Asia, and for the remains coming from China, of course, there’s concerns that have been raised in publications that the bodies may be of weaker people who are Indigenous people, thousands of whom have been and are currently detained in labor or reeducation camps.
So what policies do we need to put in place at institutions to be sure that more bodies are being collected from problematic contexts, and should universities be able to bring more remains into their possession or collections? Can that be done ethically?
So I will turn it over to you, Shannon, and then others, please do chime in.
>> SHANNON MARTIN: Yeah, I would have to say the University of Michigan model is probably one of the top models as it relates to working with tribes in consultation.
This model was developed with tribes, and there was a seat at the table for the committee for cull actually identifiable human remains where they completely overhauled their policies, and that seat is held by Mike Cawley William Johnson who is a Chairman of the Cultural Alliance Repatriation Alliance and the tribes made a call and stand to say there has to be an Indigenous person on this committee to help shape and define what the repatriation policy is for the University.
And Willie has served on that committee vigorously for the last, I would say, last 12 years.
So that model has served us well and Dr. Bensagunda who is a manager at the Youth of Michigan and Amadeus Scott have developed everything from forms and protocols on how to receive and work reverentially and expertually with tribal people when they come to repatriate. They have protocols and have shared their policies and protocols with anyone who has asked them. So I would say, you know, for us in Michigan, the tribes working with University of Michigan, they are one of the top leaders now when it comes to repatriation and working collaboratively and in meaningful and respectful consultation with tribes.
>> SONYA ATALAY: Any other ideas on policies or that question about bringing more bodies into institutions and how we address that?
>> RACHEL WATKINS: I’ll have to think about that some more, I mean, whether or not institutions should.
One thing I feel quite strongly about and this has to do with my own context at a private institution where there are skeletal collections there that are largely teaching collections, but the history of them is such that there’s a lot that isn’t known.
So I think at an institution like mine, for instance, there needs to be a policy of cataloging everything. There’s a lot of hidden rooms or places where things are hidden, somebody has something from a research track or something that people take for granted and I just a part of the woodwork of a department, say, and there just needs to be a complete shift in kind of thinking about objects that are a part of a way that suggests objects are supposed to be there, maybe a story that suggests otherwise. So what sort of policies need to be in place such this that can’t happen, that something like that isn’t naturalized?
Yeah. So again, I think there’s a lot of the ‑‑ you know, a lot of us have made points about the messiness of all of this. There’s a lot of messiness in that area as well.
>> SHANNON MARTIN: I would have to agree with Rachel.
Just from our experience, repatriating from various institutions across this country, they don’t know what they have. When we repatriate ancestors, they’re still housed in the original donation boxes, tin cans, matchbook boxes.
We repatriated an infant that was placed into an oatmeal can from the 1930s.
So I don’t see a need.
I mean, they don’t have a need to study anymore. Why receive more when all of these ancestors and bodies have been housed within these institutions for a century or more sometimes, and they’re not given care.
Proper care and respect and human dignity.
They’re not even placed in archival, nice archival boxes for the most part.
And again, what we have seen as tribal people doing this work is just absolutely horrendous and the conditions that our ancestors have been held in some of these institutions since they were donated there. Or excavated.
>> RACHEL WATKINS: And laws are such that if you were to, say, receive the skeletal remains of someone whose body of used in an anatomy class, the laws are now such that information about that person can’t be released for an extended period of time.
So it’s not even possible to get the remains of some person who died recently and do with their remains what was done, you know, with the remains that have been in these collections for so long. That kind of, to Shannon’s point, kind of provides an answer in and of it’s, I think.
>> MICHAEL BLAKEY: At Howard where (?) is in state of the art cabinetry and acid‑free drawers that was sort of a restoration from a period when it was neglected, because anatomy shifted in its focus from gross anatomy to cellular anatomy and they didn’t need it anymore. Still some years ago, Rachel remembers, my proposal was that we somehow advertise the presence of these individuals.
To the city of Washington or beyond, because most are coming from within surrounding states.
And a veil, those who could then demonstrate a relationship, the opportunity to reclaim individuals.
But the problem, there may be a number of problems that ‑‑ I’m not there anymore, but one of the things that comes to mind immediately is that, well, something along the lines of what you’ve said, and that is that ethically we can’t release their names because they’re no longer then anonymous, and I know that as we curate those remains into better cabinetry, we had to be very careful not to allow their names to be known.
I imagine that might be something that can be overcome as a policy but I understand the ethical basis.
But there are also ethics attached to allowing people to reclaim those.
>> RACHEL WATKINS: I think at least earliest the names can be released legally because they date to the early 30s.
>> MICHAEL BLAKEY: And we have a problem if you’re thinking about, you know, what would be the ‑‑ I mean, verified donation, that’s important. National or international. There’s international law that affects, that’s supposed to make the trafficking in human bodies impossible, but it apparently happens.
But even if there’s verified donation in there, particularly with international skeletal remains, the poorest people will be, as in India or what was the other places where there are many very poor people, tend to be the sites where most of these remains have come from, and is that informed consent, which is sort of where I would place the ethical onus even for many things on informed consent, but when you are under the pressure of great poverty, it’s a different kind of consent than if you are a wealthy person who would like to donate his body to science.
>> SONYA ATALAY: Thank you all for that.
I want to turn now to a few of these fantastic questions that have been coming up in the Q & A, looking and trying to group some of them together. There are so many, we won’t be able to get to them all.
A question that’s come up repeatedly is about the connection between reconciliation and repatriation and thinking of repatriation as form of reconciliation or that connection. Another question related to that was about how institutions can ‑‑ issues of reparations, how institutions can atone for these atrocities that were done and the conversations that have been had that you’re aware of around that.
So would anyone like to speak to the issues of either of those, reconciliations or atonement and what that looks like?
>> SHANNON MARTIN: Well, I could speak to reparations.
I don’t see that happening from some of these reluctant universities or institutions. They don’t even pony up funds to do consultation with tribes. You know, can they’re sitting on billion dollar endowments, yet they’re saying they don’t have funding for their repatriation work.
And the onus of the financial responsibility to do consultation and repatriation falls on a federal agency office, the national NAGPRA program that’s sorely underfunded to do this work.
And that’s another reason why, you know, it takes a little bit of time and it’s slow for tribes get from consultation to repatriation because the institutions don’t put forth any of their own money. The burden is on the national NAGPRA program, so that’s another form of public education that we need to get out there.
You know, to implore to your Congresswoman or Senator to try to up the allocations and appropriations to that office because there’s not enough money and these billion dollar endowment institutions don’t put any money forth when it comes to doing repatriation work.
>> SONYA ATALAY: We have a question about ‑‑ thank you, Shannon.
We have a question about 3D scans, quite a few questions coming in about what are your views about 3D scans before repatriation?
Anyone have any experience with that? People have also asked in relation, what about like casts, comparing that to casts that have been taken in the past? I know that’s been an issue at U.S. Amhurst at my institution of both Native American and African American folks where casts were taken, and we’re talking about repatriating those casts as well, and I know Shannon you have experience with the repatriation of DNA along with, you know, DNA samples that were taken and how institutions deal with DNA. So any other experience or anyone want to speak to those questions that came in?
>> DOROTHY LIPPERT: Yeah, just to speak about 3D scans, I was thinking, well, that’s not something that we really do. Certainly not of generally ‑‑ well, our office does not do 3D scans of human remains prior to repatriation unless a tribe has requested that. We do have one of my co‑workers has a very robust 3D scanning project working with tribes for objects so that they have made requests to have scans of the objects so that they can replicate them for their own use. So that’s a project that came out of repatriation work. It’s not ‑‑ you know, the objects are theirs and they’re working on scanning them for their own purposes, but it’s not part of the whole process of repatriation, we’re not requiring that of anybody. I think, you know, as far as whether that would be a good thing to do for osteological purposes, I would leave that up to, you know, Michael and Rachel to consider that, but just as part of our practice, it’s not something that we do.
>> MICHAEL BLAKEY: So I think this would have limited value. We did do scat scans at the African burial remains, we have radiographs, we did also at some point have a few casts of dentition, that kind of thing, but mostly the roared data and then the 1990 four standards allow comparability between studies.
So, you know, the fact is that some ‑‑ you know, I would say one of the problems is that there are far more remains than are needed for any kind of study, and that you would be dealing with a sample at any rate. And the extensive recordation and photographs, a sample would be good for DNA as we did with the African burial ground by permission and encouragement of the community to answer their questions.
So I guess there are really ‑‑ I don’t think you would need to have those scans, we have a sample of them would be good.
But I’m really impressed by the fact that one would only need a small sample of the populations, the collections that are in these museums to be of any scientific value. And the main problem, I think, is the lack of a decent scientific question to pursue.
One of the things we benefited from in the African burial ground was that we went to the community to generate the questions for their project if they were going to let us engage in it. Of course, we offered some as well as researchers.
Much better questions, you know. They wanted to know the origins, African American origins and the transformations and resistance, physical quality of life during their enslavement. We got some really powerful stories.
I think it was Suzanne Harjo, remembering a film, I did meet her and we had an interesting discussion once way back in I guess the late ’80s, but I think she made a very powerful point in a film on repatriation when she said oh, they’ve been studying all thee years and so now we know that Indians ate maise. Well, that’s not all of it, but I get her point.
So I think there’s more than recording 3D images in interest here.
What is this all about?
What kind of science does this serve?
And how can communities be involved as empowered participants in the decision‑making? Even about the science.
>> SONYA ATALAY: Well, I know we have a lot more questions coming in. Sorry, go ahead.
>> RACHEL WATKINS: I wanted to say something just quickly to the points that Dorothy and Michael made.
You know, are the scans about data collection, or is it hoarding, or is it about attempting to reassert scientific authority when something, some policy or something has been put in place to destabilize that?
Yeah, I mean, if that were to happen, that’s something that should happen with the consent, and it should be attached to a robust research question.
And I frankly haven’t seen a lot of that in a lot of the initiatives around getting these 3D scans and things, I’m not seeing that, I’m not seeing the types of partnerships that Dorothy is talking about.
>> DOROTHY LIPPERT: I remembered that part of the question involved casts and our museum has a number of facial casts, Hurlichca was big on doing that, but other ways they were made as well. So we have a number of busts that were made, you know, of living people, and we have, you know, the museum has in fact worked with a number of tribes and the relatives of the person had visited the bust, copies of the bust have been given to tribal museums, you know, there has been interaction going on with those as well. But it’s interesting to think about the ways in which the 3D medium has gone over the years, and previously they were doing plaster of Paris and now it’s electronic. But like Rachel said, what ultimately is the point? What are we going to do with these items and with the busts what we have done, what it came down to was to get back in touch with the community. So will the 3D scans, you know, if we were scanning all the remains, would that ultimately get us back in touch with the community?
>> MICHAEL BLAKEY: I think it was W.E.B. Dubois, Black anthropologist William Wills was quoting his important work, very critical of anthropology called skeletons in the anthropological closet, and he said DuBois said that Black people and it might as well apply to Native Americans, he said Black people are the football of anthropology.
That anthropologists sort of play with these data to answer their questions.
What Willis was also saying was that as African American anthropologists were becoming involved, they weren’t playing, they were trying to solve problems of their community, as opposed to working with these sort of distanced little experiments that also, you know, have implications for racial ranking and that sort of thing. So it’s more than football.
But you know, sort of a parlor game with the other.
As I think of the studies that fill the American the journal of American anthropology, fewer now involving African American and Native American skeletal because those communities have run anthropologists out of their cemeteries.
But for a long time, I mean, these are fairly narrow studies and nobody cared about African American bioarchaeology until African‑Americans became at the African burial ground, not just the scientists, but the community, in control of what it would be.
Now we see more going to different places in the parts of the world, Middle East and elsewhere, where they can have access to skeletons. They left when NAGPRA came about, we were concerned at the African burial ground some of us concerned Black scholars he especially that they were going to shift without any history context of the study of African America to the study of Black skeletons and we saw some evidence of that so the African burial ground kind of held the line on that to show that you’re going to have to justify what you’re doing.
(Bell ringing) and raising how the racism involved in folks who just sort of choose to, you know, work with this as a game, versus those who are really trying to help their community in a long effort to tell their story. Tell their own story.
>> SONYA ATALAY: Thank you, Michael. I see we are nearing the end of our time, and we have so many amazing questions from just from my notes, ground penetrating radar methods to find hidden cemeteries, talking back to your point Rachel about Western epistemologies, what is it about them that don’t attract Black, Indigenous and people of color and why are there so few nonwhite archaeologists and how to change that, people talking about lost origin information across the globe for ancestral remains and what do we do about that.
And colleagues, I know we heard Dorothy talk about sometimes communities aren’t ready to take back remains, but by and large also what we see is that these institutions are resistant and what do we do about those resistant institutions.
I think that’s by far the most of what we see.
So I think what I’m saying is we need another panel to come back and talk about all of these fantastic questions.
I do have one question that I wanted to ask and address before we wrap up, which is about healing, to have us think for a minute and reflect on healing.
Some of the benefits, positive aspects that come from repatriation.
I know from my own experience that engaging in the work of repatriation can be healing. We see evidence of this from those who have engaged in reburial of Native American ancestors, I know Shannon has spoken about this and we’ve experienced this in our work together repatriating our ancestors. I’ve written about this, I others like Chip Colwell has, this runs through the NAGPRA novel series as well, so when we’re thinking about historical trauma and unresolved historical trauma, what can repatriation do to contribute to healing?
I know it’s also possible that it can retraumatize, as happens when communities have to constantly engage in battles with resistant institutions that refuse to repatriate or only repatriate ancestral remains and not the items they were buried with or other sacred objects. I just wondered if you could take a minute to speak about your experiences with repatriation as healing, and I’ll start with you, Shannon, and others, please chime in.
>> SHANNON MARTIN: Well, healing happens and can only happen when mutual respect and understanding takes place between a repository institution or University that hold our ancestors and they’re working diligently with tribes to continue to bring those ancestors out of there and back to the descendant communities. And through that work, so much more can happen.
We’re seeing it now with the University of Michigan that we’re working to repatriate and rematriate seeds from the university’s botanical ethnographic collections and get these seeds that are sometimes 100 years old back to the origin communities to try to grow them again.
This is one example of a healing relationship that can happen through repatriation work with a University or institution and a tribe or multitude of tribes.
So the heritage seeds project is one example of that, and you can Google that at the University of Michigan. We’re engaged in that right now.
And then with that mutual respect, tribal nations are sharing see with the University of Michigan to grow out at the botanical gardens and then to show how the relationship can continue into the future by not just repatriation of NAGPRA eligible item but things that may be within the university’s collections that will now benefit our tribal people con temporarily.
>> DOROTHY LIPPERT: Going back to concept of reconciliation, sometimes it means that you’re reconciling two things, you’re reconciling two points of view.
But it can also mean you reconcile with someone or another entity, you restore a good relationship through reconciliation.
And I think repatriation can do all of that.
People talk about it or have talked about it as a process that would empty, it would empty outer museums, it would empty out the collections in the institution, but what I’ve seen is that when it’s done well, it fills in that space because it fills in the space with relationships that have been generated when a museum works with a tribal community, and then people ask about, you know, another site that maybe doesn’t have human remains but is a site that’s related to them, what does the museum have, do we have maps, do we have photographs? Maybe the tribe wants to come and work, you know, their tribal members, artists who want to come and study collections.
So the museum is refilling the space with the product of those relationships, and that can be healing for both the museum and for tribal people to come to this relationship. Coming out of trauma but coming together through repatriation.
Just kind of a big quote that I have when I kind of think about what we do in repatriation, but it’s really about what we do in life in general, it’s a quote from the author Ram Doss and he said we are all just walking each other home. That’s what we’re doing in life. We are all just walking each other home.
So in repatriation we see that very concretely, but if we think about it in general, that’s how we need to approach this work, and when we do it that way, then it truly can be healing.
>> SONYA ATALAY: Thank you, Dorothy. I think we’ll end on that note. I know we’re at time, and I want to thank sincere thanks to all of our panelists, and with that, I think I’ll turn it over to some of our sponsors, to Danilyn, to close things out. Thank you very much for our panelists.
>> DANILYN RUTHERFORD: I’m here with Ryan Wheeler and we’re going to tag team. I’m the President of the Wenner‑Gren Foundation, I want to personally thank all the panelists, I learned enormous amounts from this powerful conversation.
>> RYAN WHEELER: I’m Ryan Wheeler, director of the Robert S. Peabody Institute at Phillips Academy and we’re one of the sponsors of today’s webinar, and I would like to thank all the panelists and also everybody who attended. Repatriation is really important to us, we say that along with working with high school students, repatriation is really one of the most important things, perhaps the most important thing that we do.
So what do we ‑‑ what can we do next sort of individually and collectively?
By participating in this event, we’re all part of an ongoing effort to educate ourselves and understand. I would encourage everyone to explore the work of our panelists on the questions that have been raised here. We can all confront and address issues of justice and heritage in our work and world, and this starts with listening as we have been fortunate enough to do today. Also, you can support and join organizations such as the Society of Black Archaeologists.
>> DANILYN RUTHERFORD: The other question is, what comes next from this group? This is one in a series events on archaeology and racial justice sponsored by the Indigenous Archaeology Collective, the Society of Black anthropologists, SAPIENS, the Wenner‑Gren Foundation for Archeological Research, Cornell University, and a consortium of university‑based archaeology centers. In addition to public events, we are also working together around issues of diversity, equity and inclusion in funding and graduate training. Please join us the first Wednesday of each month through April 21 to be part of the full conversation. Next month, tune in on October 7th at 4:00 p.m. eastern for our next webinar on the archaeology of redress and restorative justice, sponsored by the Joukowski Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown University.
Thanks again for joining the conversation today, and we look forward to seeing you all next month.
>> Thank you.
(The event concluded at 6:05 p.m. EST)
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In short, you may not make edits beyond minor stylistic changes, and you must credit the author and note that the article was originally published on SAPIENS.
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