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For Native Americans repatriation has always been an issue, since non-Indians,especially European Americans, have consistently attempted to take or destroy everything in the name of progress. It appears that a double standard was part of our emerging nation in many respects, especially in regards to human rights. In respect to grave goods and human remains in burials, laws were initiated in 1788 for European American burials but not extended to include Native Americans. Even Thomas Jefferson had his slaves dig a trench through a burial mound on his Monticello plantation. Dr. Samuel Morton, a Philadelphia doctor collected over 1000 human skulls in the mid-19th century to measure cranial capacities to determine brain size which was viewed as the criteria for human intelligence. Many of the skulls were of Native Americans recently dispossessed by the 1830 Indian Removal Act which caused the removal of most of the Eastern Woodland people west of the Mississippi. Morton has been discredited, but in his day his conclusions that African Americans and Native Americans were 'inferior races' influenced attitude and policies regarding slavery, human remains, and religion.

Morton.jpg (32685 bytes)Dr. Samuel Morton

After 1868, the Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C. embarked on its own study of   Native American skulls  from battlefields and even from recently buried individuals on reservations. These were collected by Army surgeons, Indian agents, anthropologists, and locals.

An 1892 letter by Army surgeon Z.T. Daniel reveals how he obtained skulls from the Blackfeet,stating "I collected them in a way somewhat unusual : the burial place is in plain sight of many Indian houses and very near frequented roads. I had to visit the country at night when not even the dogs were stirring...The greatest fear I had was that some Indian would miss the heads, see my tracks & ambush me, but they didn't." There are a number of documents indicating that skulls were taken not only from battlefields, but from 'fresh' graves and from bodies of Native Americans that died in the hands of government agents. It became a common concern for Native American people and often bodies had to be taken away from non-Indian authorities because of such rampant desecration. The most famous might also sold to carnivals for exhibit. Chief Crazy Horse's body was fortunately taken by Lakota people and secretly interred.

Other museums joined in and even sent out their own expeditions to plunder Indian burials. The largest collections in the United States ended up at the following:

Smithsonian Institution, Wash. D.C. 18,500 Native American remains
Peabody Museum, Harvard U. 10,500 Native American remains
American Museum of Natural History, N.Y.,N.Y. 8,000 Native American remains
Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, IL 3,000 Native American remains
San Diego Museum of Man 1,110 mostly Ca.; some cremations
Museum of Cultural History, UCLA, Los Angeles,CA 1,300(mostly Ca. tribes)
Lowie Museum of Anthro., UCB, Berkeley,CA 8,000 remains (many diff. groups)
Anthro.Dept., Stanford U.,Palo Alto, CA 550 remains ( N. Ca. Tribes)

The displacement of many Native American people and the general 19th century perception that Native Americans would disappear led to many prehistoric sites being pillaged or used as a tourist attraction, including burial mounds. The Antiquities Act of 1906 protected federal lands from being looted by pot hunters, but did not prevent desecration of graves and patriation of human remains by public and private museums. In the early part of the 20th century Native American populations, especially in North America reached their lowest numbers (~100,000 in the U.S.) but steadily increased to 2 million by the 1990's. After World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, and Vietnam the combination of Native American cultural revitalization, increased challenges to the erosion of Native American sovereignty, and the questioning of ethics in the academic community brought on a number changes leading to the Repatriation Movement. During the 1970's a number of cases concerning Native American burials and human remains were brought to the courts resulting in reburial and even changing the law to, after 200 years, protecting the graves of Native Americans. Since the Federal Government would not defend Native American civil rights, many Native American groups were formed to become advocates to such issues. One organization called American Indians Against Desecration (AID) has worked in conjunction with the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), Native American Rights Fund (NARF), and others to repatriate. Many anthropologists opposed the actions of the Native American groups arguing that science has precedence over religious beliefs and that living Native Americans did not always have claim to prehistoric remains that are difficult to trace thousands of years. An organization known as American Committee for Preservation of Archaeological Collections (ACPAC)  has become a strong advocate for combating the reburial movement.

Burialsign (65601 bytes)

State and Federal governments and agencies have enacted a number of pieces of legislation allowing for repatriation, protecting burials and cultural resources, and protecting sacred sites.The Federal Acts are listed as follows:




Antiquities Act


some protection of archaeological resources for arch. science
National Historical Preservation Act (NHPA) 1966 consultation with Native Americans and public in reference to national registry sites
National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) 1969 natural and cultural resource assessments
Archaeological Resource Protection Act (ARPA) 1979 consultation and confidentiality about arch. resources that requires federal permit
American Indian Religious Freedom Act (ARFA) 1979 not well enforced, esp. in courts
Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) 1990 consultation and repatriation with Native Americans in reference to human remains,funeral objects, and sacred objects in public agency control

The legislation referred to as NAGPRA has had the most sweeping effects and set into motion a process that requires public institutions to report their holdings of human remains, grave goods, and other sacred objects. Native Americans have gotten some resolution to the recovery of human remains and objects that hold religious or sacred import.  Unfortunately, some anthropologists and some Native Americans use such legislation as a pure political tool and do not seem to be willing to communicate or empathize with differing points of view. Some Native American groups have sincere traditional beliefs and some scientists sincerely seek knowledge and scientific inquiry.   Also, this legislation is not a means to recovering all valuable art and cultural resources as some opponents claim. Native American cultures have different beliefs about human remains, mortuary customs and sacred objects. Some Native American groups, nations, and communities have and continue to work cooperatively with anthropologists in studying their past.

CreekGrCornFBeaver.jpg (95945 bytes)Green Corn Dance



Kumeyaay Cultural Resource Committee