Jan 23, 2023 - News

UTSA, Witte Museum still hold Indigenous remains

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

Some government agencies, universities and museums in Texas — including the University of Texas at San Antonio and the Witte Museum — 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: UTSA's Center for Archaeological Research has the fourth largest collection of unrepatriated Native American remains in Texas, with the remains of 297 Indigenous persons that have not been made available for return to tribes.

  • The Witte Museum has the remains of 70 Indigenous persons that have not been made available for repatriation. A museum spokesperson tells Axios it is working with the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan people to return the remains.

UTSA is working to return the remains and is in full compliance with federal law, Joe Izbrand, the university's chief communications officer, tells Axios.

  • He says UTSA acquired the remains through excavations conducted by the school or donations from other institutions or private groups.
  • "They are preserved with dignity and stored in a secure facility. It is our intention to repatriate all of the remains and objects to the rightful parties, and we are working methodically to facilitate their return, enabled in part by a grant from the National Park Service," he says.

In Austin, the University of Texas Archeological Research Laboratory has the 17th largest cache of unrepatriated Native American remains in the country and largest in Texas.

  • 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 its 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 of the 377 Indigenous remains 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.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a comment from the Witte Museum.


Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios San Antonio.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More San Antonio stories

San Antoniopostcard

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


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more