Returning bones is a daunting task

Native Americans: Museums are ordered to repatriate remains to the appropriate tribes for burial, but numerous complications slow the process.

Medicine & Science

January 12, 2004|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - In cavernous storage rooms closed to tourists at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History lie the bones of about 14,700 Native Americans.

Despite hopes that they would be quickly returned to tribal lands, most are likely to stay where they are for a long time.

Laws passed in 1989 and 1990 require the Smithsonian and other museums to inventory their collections of Native American remains and return them when possible. The National Park Service is charged with overseeing the process.

Less than a fifth of the Smithsonian's original collection of 18,000 remains has been returned; 90,000 sets of remains in the nation's other museums lack sufficient documentation to ensure their return anytime soon.

Repatriating remains can take years because of scientific uncertainty about their origins, the work involved in identifying them and traditions observed by many of the 770 federally recognized tribes.

"When these laws were passed, people pushing them thought it was going to take five years to return what was collected, but they had no idea what they were asking. It's an incredibly complex task," said Thomas Killion, an anthropology professor at Wayne State University who used to head the Smithsonian repatriation office.

The Smithsonian - which has the largest single collection of bones by far - spends $1 million a year and has 15 anthropologists and researchers poring over the bones in an effort to return them to their descendants.

But it isn't enough to ensure quick returns.

"I think the process is going to take a very long time," said William Billeck, head of the Smithsonian's repatriation office.

The bones at the Smithsonian and other museums were unearthed over the years by archaeologists, private collectors, government expeditions, construction workers and farmers. During the 1800s, for example, Army physicians were under orders to ship east for study any Native American skulls they found.

In Maryland, 131 sets of remains stored at the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in St. Leonard are exempt from the federal return law because they can't be traced to any federally recognized tribe, said Richard B. Hughes, chief of the state Office of Archeology.

Many tribal officials say they understand why repatriation takes so long. But they're still angry that the bones were dug up and stored in the first place.

"They should have just been left where they were. It's very dehumanizing," said Francis Morris, the Pawnee tribe's repatriation coordinator.

Museums receiving federal funds must repatriate remains identifiable by tribe. But once that happens, they're not required to report actual returns to the National Park Service. "It's very difficult to quantify how the process is going," said Paula Molloy, who supervises the park service program.

The 380 museums, historical societies and federal agencies covered by the repatriation law have 27,312 sets of remains available for repatriation. But 90,833 more remain unidentified because of poor documentation.

"For some, there's no geographic record of where they were found at all," Molloy said. They might never be returned.

Confirming the tribal affiliation of a set of bones is a painstaking process.

First, researchers inspect any written records accompanying the remains - often notes from archaeologists or Army officers, Billeck said. If those are too vague, scientists turn to old maps, letters and colonial records. "The remains can be straightforward, or next to impossible to identify," he said.

"There's no way of knowing what you have until you get into working with it."

The Smithsonian gets two or three formal repatriation requests from tribes annually, and each takes two to three years to complete, said Billeck.

But the Smithsonian can move quickly on high-profile requests. Consider the case of Ishi, a California native known as the last "wild Indian," who died in 1916. When a researcher discovered Ishi's brain at the Smithsonian in 1999, the story attracted national press, and officials demanded its return to California soil.

"We were getting letters from politicians, people like [California Lt. Gov.] Cruz Bustamante and Senator [Dianne] Feinstein. It was given a top priority," said Killion, who worked on the Ishi repatriation.

It took only a month for the Smithsonian to recommend that Ishi's brain be returned, Killion said. But negotiations with the California tribes that had jurisdiction over his burial site, north of Sacramento near Mount Lassen, took more than a year. Such haste is a rarity.

"For the most part, there's no one with a lot of political clout pushing things along," said Russel Thornton, a UCLA anthropologist and former chairman of a Smithsonian committee that reviews tribal claims.

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