Jan 19, 2023 - News

State institutions still hold Indigenous remains

Washington institutions with Indigenous remains not made available for return
Adapted from ProPublica; Chart: Axios Visuals

Some government agencies and universities in Washington state continue to hold the remains of Indigenous people, despite a 1990 law that requires them to work to return those remains 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 detailed investigation.

  • Returning the remains of Indigenous people to their descendants is not only required legally, but ethically, said Lourdes Henebry-DeLeon, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act program director at Central Washington University.
  • "We never had permission to have these individuals," she told Axios Seattle. "Their descendants want their relatives to come back home."

Context: While museums have at times put Native American remains on display, universities also have used them in classrooms in the past, Henebry-DeLeon said.

  • Archaeology faculty sometimes brought remains back to the university, or collectors donated them, she said. Other remains were transferred between institutions or unearthed during construction projects.

By the numbers: According to ProPublica's database, 10 institutions in Washington state still had the remains of Indigenous people in their possession as of December.

  • Of those, some have made the vast majority available to tribes for repatriation. For instance, the University of Washington had only one Indigenous person's remains, after making the remains of 281 others available for return to tribes, according to ProPublica's data. UW didn't provide details about why that last set of remains was still in its collection.

Meanwhile, Western Washington University had returned only 3 sets of Indigenous remains, while 89 remained in its collection, per the database.

What they're saying: Laural Ballew, tribal liaison for WWU, wrote in a statement to Axios Seattle that the university "has been actively working to repatriate all remains and cultural items to their rightful Indigenous communities of origin."

  • Ballew called it an "ongoing and sensitive process," which "requires the careful identification and respectful housing of all human remains."
  • University spokesperson Jonathan Higgins said some remains have ended up in WWU's collection after construction crews found them and sought input from university archaeologists. None of the remains currently at Western were used for instruction or display, he said. 
  • The Nooksack, Lummi and Swinomish tribes — three tribes located in Northwest Washington in the counties nearest Western's campus — didn't respond to inquiries from Axios Seattle this week.

Between the lines: Henebry-DeLeon said returning cultural artifacts and human remains involves extensive consulting with tribes, in part to determine where the remains and other items must go.

  • She said Central Washington University has reached out to tribes and is completing that process for all of the human remains left in its collection.
  • The entire process can take anywhere from six months to six years, depending on how many tribes might need to be consulted and the difficulty of documenting the source of individual remains, she said.

What we're watching: How quickly universities such as Western make remains available to tribes.

  • Henebry-DeLeon said she expects that Central's final sets of human remains will be ready to return within two to three years.
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