Repatriation Is Our Future

In the SAPIENS podcast season 4 finale, listeners hear the story of Dr. Rachel Watkins and why repatriation matters for African American communities.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, or NAGPRA, is supposed to curb the illegal possession of ancestral Native American remains and cultural items. But a year after it was passed by the U.S. federal government, a significant African burial ground in New York City was uncovered. And there was zero legislation in place for its protection. Dr. Rachel Watkins shares the story of the New York African Burial Ground—and what repatriation looks like for African American communities.


  • Dr. Rachel Watkins, Ph.D., is a biocultural anthropologist with an emphasis on African American biohistory and social history, bioanthropological research practices, and histories of American biological anthropology. Initially trained in skeletal biology, her work focused on looking at relationships between health, disease, and social location in people whose remains are in the W. Montague Cobb anatomical collection and interred at the New York African Burial Ground. This research led to a broader interest in how African American skeletal remains and living populations were centered in the development of research practices and racial formation in U.S. biological anthropology. Rachel draws on intellectual and political work tied to Cobb and his laboratory from 1932 to the present as sites for understanding science as a social practice through a Black feminist lens. This includes: traditions of Black scholar-activism contesting scientific racism, anthropology’s efforts toward critiquing scientific racism without attending to structural racism, and the positionality of scientific researchers.

SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human is produced by House of Pod and supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. SAPIENS is also part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. This season was created in collaboration with the Indigenous Archaeology Collective and the Society of Black Archaeologists, with art by Carla Keaton and music from Jobii, _91nova, and Justnormal.

Thank you to the Harvard Crimson and their podcast, A Legacy Revealed, for permitting us to use a clip from episode 4, “I Could See Family in Their Eyes,” hosted by Raquel Coronell Uribe and Six Yu and produced by Lara Dada, Zing Gee, and Thomas Maisonneuve.

Listen also to SAPIENS Talk Back, a companion series by Cornell University’s RadioCIAMS. In episode 7, we continue the discussion that began in the finale of season 4 of the SAPIENS podcast, a conversation that examines “repatriation” and what it means for archaeology. Our guests this episode are Dr. Rachel Watkins, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at American University and a specialist in African American biohistory, and Dr. Dorothy Lippert, an expert in repatriation and a tribal liaison for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Check out these related resources:

Episode sponsor:

  • University of California, Los Angeles, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology

Additional support:

  • University of Arizona’s School of Anthropology

Read a transcript of this episode here.

Back to Season 4 homepage.