UMass plans to repatriate American Indian remains

Last modified: Thursday, April 18, 2013

AMHERST — In 1925, while excavating mammoth bones on Florida’s east coast, prolific paleontologist and Amherst College professor F.B. Loomis discovered some curious mounds.

Loomis had his men dig them up, removing layer after layer of earth mixed with human skeletons. After the seven-week dig, Loomis returned to Amherst with his bounty: 50 skulls and about a dozen skeletons. They were the remains of American Indians. The bones Loomis dug up nearly 100 years ago now reside at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, but not for much longer.

After more than a decade of consulting with tribes and poring over scant documents, UMass is returning the remains to their modern-day tribes: the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Oklahoma; the Seminole Tribe of Florida; and the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.

“The Europeans looked at these mounds and asked ‘Who built these?’ And the Indians that lived right next to them, they were not considered capable of doing that,” said Robert Paynter, a UMass anthropology professor working on repatriation. “I’m happy we were able to help the university take steps toward bridging this rift.”

For 20 years, federal law has compelled collectors to return American Indian remains. Even as UMass complies, repatriation is a controversial subject. Some archaeologists believe the practice impedes research while others say items culled from grave robbing must be returned. Restoring an ancestor’s remains to a tribe can be a struggle; transfer records have been lost over time, and skeletons were split up and divided among multiple institutions. The process can become frustrating and UMass has gotten caught up in the confusion. Several years ago a formal complaint was filed against the university by tribes who said UMass erred in not repatriating a set of remains to them. The university was later cleared of these charges, but not before rebutting the allegations in a 70-page explanation.

As required by law, UMass made its inventory of American Indian holdings public in 1997. Faculty and graduate student volunteers started contacting tribes in the 1990s, but conversations to repatriate the group of 65 individuals’ remains really got going in the 2000s, Paynter said. The university has repatriated American Indian remains and items on five previous occasions.

Both Donna “Rae” Gould, American Indian repatriation coordinator at UMass and a member of the Nipmuc Nation based in central Massachusetts, and John Brown, historic preservation officer for the Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island, explained that discussing burial rituals with people outside American Indian culture is rarely done. Burial is a private process, they say. Talking about it publicly would be akin to “putting church confessions on the street,” Brown said.

Efforts to reach representatives of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Oklahoma, the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma for this story were unsuccessful. Members of the three involved tribes did not return phone calls and emails seeking comment.

Returning remains

Looting American Indian graves dates back to the first settlers and continued into the 1980s. For a while, people collected and traded American Indian skulls, Gould said. Phrenology, the study of head bumps as a way to recognize personality traits, drove up demand for the skulls until it was dismissed as quackery in the late 1800s.

The federal government has identified the remains of 175,000 American Indians and millions of their funerary artifacts in public collections. There is no comparable estimate for the holdings of private collectors. But a 1993 law, the Native American Graves Protection Act, widely known by its acronym, NAGPRA, mandates that any institution receiving federal dollars must return the remains and the items with which they were buried to their modern-day tribes.

The law requires collectors to inventory their American Indian remains and funerary objects collections, make the data public and contact tribes that may be interested in repatriation. They must also work with the tribes to establish “cultural affiliation” with them. The law also protects unmarked graves from excavation.

Locally, Amherst College, which has a collection of American Indian remains and relics, is also involved in repatriation efforts. In December, the college announced that American Indian remains of two individuals also dug up by Loomis are being returned to tribes. In the 1930s, Amherst College’s American Indian museum had more than 3,000 items in its collection.

“If you view NAGPRA as a human rights law, you begin to understand the depth of the issues at stake,” said Paynter. “If you frame it as a bureaucratic law or Indian vs. museum law, you don’t get to the depth of the struggle.”

UMass is a pro-NAGPRA institution, said Paynter. In 2010, UMass added a NAGPRA coordinator, Gould, to its faculty — a rare move for an institution of higher education.

Even with that commitment, figuring out where remains came from and who they should be returned to is difficult for collectors as well as American Indians.

Documents are scarce. Determining which tribes lived when and where isn’t always easy, either. Disagreements over the remains’ heritage arise. Years of trying to prove rightful ownership of a skull can become frustrating.

“That’s the rare case, when you find clear documentation,” Gould said. “Sometimes you do, many times you don’t.”

Weak recordkeeping

Documents were lacking for the 65 human remains UMass is returning. The bones are part of the university’s original collection of 180 American Indians’ remains and hundreds of funerary objects the university is planning to return.

“They were keeping records,” Paynter said, “just not records to the standard we keep them today.”

Paynter, Gould and the 19 tribes they consulted had little to go on but transfer records, oral history, a few pictures of the burial site and an old newspaper article.

Marked with black tracking numbers by Loomis’ team, the remains were kept at Amherst College’s Gilbert Museum of Indian Relics, which operated from 1903 to 1933, until the 1980s when the remains were transferred to UMass and its burgeoning biological anthropology program. Added to that transfer was another set of human remains representing at least one person excavated in 1869 by unknown collectors and donated to Amherst College in the late 1930s.

A 1925 article in the Boston Globe helped tie the remains of 64 individuals to Loomis when it reported that during his seven weeks in Florida, the paleontologist excavated “50 Native American skulls and about a dozen skeletons.”

Whether the remains were part of any research or experimentation is unknown. Gould and Paynter said they are not aware of any research having been conducted on the remains at UMass. And the university never put the remains out for public display, they said.

Geography as destiny

In the end, the decisions about ownership of the remains came down to geography. That is the characteristic most relied on by anthropologists to establish cultural affiliation.

“If you’re looking at remains from Florida, you ask what tribes were in Florida. What tribes are interested in Florida?” Gould said. “It can take 13, 18 months, but at the end you’ve reached a decision, a consensus and that feels pretty good.”

The return of remains to the Muscogee and Seminoles was a fairly straightforward process, but repatriation isn’t always so smooth. Investigators are trying to decipher old hand-scratched notes and landscapes that no longer exist. The backdrop is nasty allegations of grave robbing. These factors can lead to disagreements, and tensions running high. UMass has experienced this.

In 2008, several New England tribes banded together to file a 56-charge complaint with the NAGPRA Review Committee. The tribes, which first requested repatriation in 2002, alleged UMass had violated the law by not repatriating the remains of 55 individuals to them. They also alleged that UMass had not filed its inventory on time, another violation of the graves protection act.

In a 70-page response to the National NAGPRA Program, Paynter said the remains could not be repatriated to the tribes because cultural affiliation hadn’t been established. He wasn’t convinced the remains belonged to the tribes who filed the complaint. National NAGPRA agreed on that point, but faulted UMass for filing its inventory late, a claim the university did not dispute.

The university is still working with tribes, some of the same ones that filed the charges, to get the remains where they belong.

“We’re still in consultation with them. We want to work this out,” Paynter said.

“And it’s going positively,” Gould added.

Sherry Hutt, program manager for the National NAGPRA Program, said such negotiations are par for the course. Often, the issue is resolved by the time a hearing is scheduled.

“Sometimes communication breaks down between the tribes and the museum and out of frustration they desire to come before the committee,” Hutt said. “It’s better than a lawsuit.”

And not every museum and university is on board with returning American Indian remains to their modern-day tribes.

Kevin McBride, director of research at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center in Connecticut, described the science community’s initial reaction to NAGPRA as a “freak out” over the potential loss of researchable relics.

“As an anthropologist, I know an enormous amount can be learned from the study of human remains,” McBride said, “but the concerns and wishes of the native peoples, the descendants of these peoples takes precedence over that.”

McBride said the initial panic subsided — for a while. It may be creeping back. In the last several years, McBride, who has aided tribes in repatriation, said he has seen more institutions “stonewalling” tribes seeking the return of their ancestors.

“The initial flush of goodwill and political correctness is over now,” McBride said. “I think everyone realizes there needs to be some fixing, tweaking of the act, but by and large, it’s been largely successful for all communities involved.”

Kristin Palpini can be contacted at


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