Feb 9, 2023 - News

Iowa's unreturned Indigenous remains

Iowa institutions with Indigenous remains
Data: Adapted from ProPublica; Chart: Axios Visuals

Iowa universities and museums continue to hold the remains of Indigenous people despite a 1990 federal law encouraging their return to tribes and Native American organizations, ProPublica reports.

The latest: All but about 7% — 98 of nearly 1,400 remains — have been made available for return, data shows.

Flashback: Archaeologists and collectors looted Indigenous gravesites, places of worship and homes for decades — often with the backing of the federal government.

  • The Congressional Budget Office in 1990 estimated it would take a decade to repatriate what could be as many as 200,000 remains.

Zoom in: Iowa became the first state to enact a law protecting ancient burial sites back in 1976, specifically those that are 150 years or older.

What they're saying: Repatriation efforts continue across the state, Jeff Morgan, spokesperson for the State Historical Society of Iowa, tells Axios.

  • The University of Northern Iowa Museum, for example, says it sent dozens of letters to tribe officials in 2019. So far, none have been claimed, the museum said in a statement to Axios.

Of note: 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.

What's next: Until remains are claimed or tribes decide what to do with them, they will remain in the care of the local institutions that have them, state archaeologist John Doershuk tells Axios.

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