Jan 20, 2023 - News

Texas institutions still hold Indigenous remains

Data: Adapted from ProPublica; Chart: Axios Visuals

Some government agencies, universities and museums in Texas continue to hold the remains of Indigenous people, despite a 1990 federal law that requires they work to return them to tribes.

Why it matters: Native American artifacts and gravesites were looted for many decades, often with the federal government's encouragement, ProPublica reported in a recent, detailed investigation.

By the numbers: The University of Texas Archeological Research Laboratory, which has the 17th largest collection of unrepatriated Native American remains in the country and the largest cache in Texas, reported still having the remains of at least 1,900 Indigenous persons that have not been made available for return to tribes.

  • The remains of 341 Native Americans, or 15% of the university's collection, have been made available for return to tribes, according to ProPublica.
  • Lab officials say they have completed comprehensive inventories of the remains, and the disposition of the remains and associated objects "will be determined by each tribe."
  • The university's collection is kept in a separate, quiet, climate-controlled room, and the lab "has worked diligently and within legal requirements," to respond to requests, officials said in a September statement.

Yes, but: The Miakan-Garza Band, a Coahuiltecan tribe local to Central Texas that is not federally recognized, recently renewed their push to get the lab to return three sets of remains found in Hays County.

  • University officials initially denied the request in 2020 over what they considered to be a lack of evidence linking the remains to the tribe.
  • UT later sought a recommendation from a review committee formed under the 1990 law, but the case has been put on hold as the university considers an alternative plan to build a massive archeological cemetery for "culturally unidentifiable" remains.

What they're saying: "That spirit has been in agony, waiting," Maria Rocha, an elder of the Miakan-Garza Band, said during a September prayer. "UT is saying that spirit can wait three or four more years, 10 more years in agony. So I'm saying to myself, if their parent or grandparent was in agony, would they just postpone it for a few more years? No, no."

Zoom out: According to ProPublica's database, 28 Texas institutions still had the remains of Indigenous people in their possession.

  • Of those, some have made the majority available to tribes for repatriation. For instance, Texas A&M University had 55 Indigenous persons' remains, after making the remains of 112 people available for return to tribes, according to ProPublica's data.
  • Meanwhile, Museum of Texas Tech University has not returned any Indigenous remains, despite having 377 in its collection, per the database.

Between the lines: Institutions must identify remains and consult with tribes to determine where the remains and other items must go. Critics say following the law can be expensive for tribes and is full of red tape that delays the return of remains and other sacred objects.


Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Austin.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Austin stories

No stories could be found


Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Austin.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more