Anthropology Magazine

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


CART captioning provided by Lori Stavropoulos.


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.