Mar 8, 2023 - Politics

Some Arizona Indigenous remains still not made eligible for return

Institutions with Indigenous remains taken from Arizona
Data: Adapted from ProPublica; Chart: Axios Visuals

Museums and government agencies in Arizona and nationwide still hold a significant number of Indigenous remains from the state's tribes, despite a 1990 federal law requiring that they be returned.

Why it matters: As the U.S. expanded westward in the late 19th century, there was widespread looting of Indigenous remains, funerary objects and cultural items, an issue ProPublica recently detailed.

  • The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) requires institutions that receive federal funding to return those remains and objects to Indigenous tribes they were taken from.
  • Institutions must report remains made available for return to Native American tribes but aren't required to report when actual transfers take place, so data on repatriations is spotty, per ProPublica.

By the numbers: Institutions with remains from Arizona tribes have reported making 67% of them available for return under NAGPRA, ProPublica reports.

  • 97 institutions in the U.S. have Native American remains taken from Arizona.

Of note: Arizona is home to 22 tribal nations, including the Navajo Nation — the second-largest in the U.S. in terms of population and largest by land mass.

Zoom in: The institutions with the largest number of Arizona tribal remains are federal agencies — the departments of the Interior and Agriculture have 4,910 and 4,810, respectively, according to ProPublica's data.

  • Both agencies have made the majority of those remains available for return.
  • The NAGPRA program doesn't have information on requests by individual tribes, according to a spokesperson from the National Parks Service, which administers the program.

Meanwhile: About half the 3,802 remains at UofA's Arizona State Museum have been made available for return, while a sliver of the 798 remains held by ASU's School of Human Evolution and Social Change have been made available.

  • Spokesperson Darlene Lizarraga told Axios Phoenix the museum works closely with tribes and has "probably the most active repatriation program in the country," returning thousands of human remains and tens of thousands of cultural objects, with more repatriations scheduled.
  • ASU spokesperson Jerry Gonzalez said the school works closely with tribes "to respectfully and efficiently repatriate in a timely manner that is consistent with tribal concerns, current practices, and federal laws."

Between the lines: A spokesperson for Harvard University's Peabody Museum said Arizona is a priority for the institution, and it has many notices regarding remains from the state.

  • The university is attempting to fulfill requirements to publish federal register notices for remains from 6,100 people nationally during a three-year period, spokesperson Rachel Dane told Axios Phoenix.
  • Harvard has nearly 900 remains from Arizona tribes, only eight of which have been made available for return, per ProPublica.

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Phoenix.

More Phoenix stories