Utah museum acknowledges it’s ‘not appropriate’ to hold Native ancestors. Here’s what it’s doing about it.

Repatriation has been slow. Now, an update to federal rules — and more staff — “opens up an opportunity for us to return the ancestors home.”

From inside the quiet of a cave, and again from a resting place on a black rock butte, a private collector seized the human remains of Native Americans and their belongings nearly a century ago in Millard County.

The seven ancestors and funerary objects were given to the University of Utah in the early 1930s and remained in its possession for decades. Until 2010 — when the Natural History Museum of Utah announced it was working to transfer them to the Kanosh Band of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah.

The museum’s repatriation efforts since then have been slow, with only six similar notices published in the Federal Register, reflecting a total of 67 ancestors made available to affiliated tribes.

That pace has left the Natural History Museum with the 42nd largest number of unrepatriated Native American ancestral remains in the country, according to an investigation by ProPublica, out of roughly 600 federally funded institutions that have reported having such human remains to the Department of the Interior.

That’s about to change, promises Alex Greenwald, the museum’s curator of ethnography.

In December, the Biden administration updated the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which was passed in 1990. It was designed to speed up the return of Native American human remains and funerary, sacred or culturally important objects to Indigenous groups.

The new regulations “will now allow us to repatriate based on geography, rather than cultural affiliation,” which had been a “pretty high bar,” said Greenwald, who also is an assistant anthropology professor at the U.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The change, she said, “opens up an opportunity for us to return the ancestors home that we didn’t have before.”

The U. has approved the creation of a new position, allowing an upcoming hire to work full time on NAGPRA and other repatriations, Greenwald added in an email, which is something those at NHMU have “wanted to do for a long time.”

More than 30 years after NAGPRA became law, ProPublica found, more than 110,000 Native American, Native Hawaiian and Alaska Natives’ ancestors are still held by museums, universities and federal agencies.

The update is meant to “streamline” the repatriation process and strengthen the role of Indigenous communities as institutions make those decisions, said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold a U.S. cabinet position.

There are 416 ancestral remains at the Natural History Museum of Utah that have not been made available for repatriation, according to ProPublica’s database, the largest number at an in-state institution. Many of these ancestors were found in Utah, though nearly 100 do not have location information and a dozen are from surrounding states, according to federal data compiled by the nonprofit.

The Salt Lake City museum said 168 of those ancestors are being held for federal agencies, and it has “decision authority” over the other 248 ancestors.

Many ancestors held by the museum come from “Fremont archaeological contexts,” Greenwald explained, “and there is not a strongly established line of descent between Fremont archaeological populations and a living cultural population.”

Now, “we will be able to go back to our location information and have a good understanding of, this is the ancestral territory of this group, or the current territory of this group,” she said, and open repatriation discussions with tribes.

“Our institution feels like it is not appropriate for us to be holding these ancestors and that it has gone on for more than a century, that the University of Utah has held ancestors,” she said. " … We’re happy to be able to move forward to repatriate these individuals.”

‘A very different attitude’

(Reprinted courtesy of the University of Utah Press) Archaeologists in 1958 excavated a site near Boulder that later became part of Anasazi State Park. This image was published in University of Utah Anthropological Papers, The Coombs Site, in 1959.

Ancestors have come to the museum after their graves were disturbed by collectors, children, hikers or archeologists, or by plowing or landslides, according to its past repatriation notices.

“Some ancestors that remain in our collections came to either the University of Utah before the museum existed as a museum, or came to the museum shortly after it was officially established in the 1970s,” Greenwald said.

Some of these “legacy” ancestors were excavated between 1900 and the 1960s, she said, “when it was very common for archaeologists to not do consultation with tribal communities and [to] have a very different attitude than we have today about human remains.”

In 1958 and 1959, the University of Utah excavated 37 ancestors — from newborns to elders — from private land in the town of Boulder, in Garfield County. A crowd of weekend visitors to the site watched as human remains were uncovered, the Garfield County News and The Salt Lake Tribune reported in August 1959, and spectators guessed that the “fine vessels” nearby meant the ancestor was a leader.

The site eventually became part of Anasazi State Park. The ancestors and dozens of funerary objects were transferred from the U. to the Natural History Museum of Utah in 1973; they were at the park in 2018 when the museum announced it was working to repatriate them, potentially to the Hopi Tribe of Arizona.

(Reprinted courtesy of the University of Utah Press) Archaeologists in 1958 excavated a Native American site near Boulder that later became part of Anasazi State Park. This image shows rooms in the settlement. It was published in University of Utah Anthropological Papers, The Coombs Site, in 1959.

Some funeral objects and 168 of the ancestors at NHMU arrived there via agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Forest Service, National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, museum officials note.

“These ancestors were disturbed by a variety of historic undertakings on federal land,” Greenwald wrote in an email. “For example, excavations undertaken in advance of dam construction.”

NHMU receives ancestors removed during projects on federal lands because it’s the state repository for archaeological materials in Utah, she said — but the ancestral remains are under the control of federal repositories. “In some cases, we receive one-time or ongoing funding to support our stewardship.”

The museum is currently working to repatriate ancestral remains under federal control to the Hopi tribe, she said.

The earliest recorded acquisition date for the 248 ancestors under NHMU’s direct authority is 1917 and the most recent is 1982. The “majority of these ancestors were unfortunately excavated” from “projects undertaken by archaeologists, anthropologists affiliated with the U.,” Greenwald said. They are generally adults, she added.

Jason Cryan, executive director of NHMU, noted the museum does not accept donations of human remains, and hasn’t for decades.

At Brigham Young University, the Museum of Peoples and Cultures has made 46 ancestors found in Utah, Millard, San Juan and Kane counties available to tribes. Several were excavated by BYU field schools; others were found by miners or during construction projects. Another 48 ancestors at the museum have not gone through that process, according to ProPublica.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The museum “is very sensitive to these important matters and has been working for many years with Indigenous community members to identify and return” ancestral remains, it said in a statement. “We are moved by a sense of the sacred and share a deep respect and love for all ancestors. We recognize that this is very difficult, emotional, and spiritual work for descendant communities.”

The new regulations have provided “much-needed clarification and reduced previous barriers that held up several aspects of this important work,” it added. “We look forward to returning the remaining individuals home to their people.”

Utah State University Eastern’s Prehistoric Museum in Price has three ancestors that have not been made available. In 2011, it announced that it had identified affiliated tribes for 16 ancestors found in Carbon, San Juan, Emery and possibly Grand counties, from the 1950s to the early 1990s. They had been found by ranchers, excavated by archeologists or exposed by reservoir construction, the notice said. The museum did not respond to a request for comment.

No more ‘culturally unidentified individuals’

Before December’s updates to NAGPRA, Greenwald said, organizations like NHMU already were required to report their possession of ancestral remains, funeral objects and other cultural items covered by the law.

NHMU complied, which meant Native communities could search its inventory and make a repatriation request, she noted. That would start a research process to evaluate the claim, which could eventually lead to the ancestral remains or objects being made available to the tribe.

But most of the ancestors, she said, are considered “culturally unidentified individuals,” which means “there is little to no cultural or scientific consensus on affiliation with an extant tribal nation, and no tribes made claims for repatriation.”

The issue “for our museum, and many museums,” she said, “is whose ancestors these are.”

Identifying a link to a tribe through scientific processes is tricky, Greenwald said, because many of those techniques can damage or even destroy remains. There’s also the issue of performing these tests without clear consent, she said.

“There were not good legal pathways for repatriation because tribal communities didn’t have a strong claim on them,” she said.

The update eliminates the broad loophole.

Now, “we need to reinventory and reclassify ancestors who have previously been identified as a ‘culturally unidentifiable individual,’” Greenwald said, “and pursue consultation and repatriation [with tribes] under geographic affiliation.”

NHMU’s goal, she said, is to come back into “compliance with NAGPRA” in the next five years, as required by the update.

A ‘shared humanity’

The burden of tracking down remains or cultural objects and requesting repatriation, for now, generally remains on Indigenous people, said Edward Halealoha Ayau, a member of Hui Iwi Kuamo’o, a group in Hawaii dedicated to repatriation efforts.

In the last 30-plus years, the organization has helped with 150 formal repatriation cases — mostly involving ancestral remains and cultural objects. Ayau has helped with such requests himself, including one sent recently to the Natural History Museum of Utah.

Ayau had never heard of NHMU, he said, but when he recently became aware of it, he asked whether it held any ancestral remains or funeral objects.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lisbeth Louderback, curator of archaeology, talks about the exhibits at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

None of the objects on the museum’s list from Hawaii fits the bill under NAGPRA, Ayau said. But he saw a phaku ku’i poi — in English, a poi pounder — a stone object used to mash taro root into poi, a starchy dietary staple in Hawaii.

It was “a daily use tool,” not a “a ceremonial object,” he said, but he made a humanitarian request to have the poi pounder returned voluntarily because it was a cultural object.

NHMU agreed, and the process, from inquiry to return, took two months, which Ayau said is “relatively quick.”

“The hardest part is initiating the advocacy,” he said. “… When we get them home, now we’re faced with a whole other level of challenges, which has to do with where we rebury them, so that they don’t get taken again.”

Ayau said the responsiveness to Hui Iwi Kuamo’o’s requests for repatriation has varied. “NAGPRA provides a framework for the consultation, but that doesn’t mean that museums are agreeable to the question,” he said.

Still, he said, views from museums have “matured” in the past 30 years.

“Now there’s this marvelous perspective of what we call ‘shared humanity,’” Ayau said. “We have this colonial past, in which the collection of human remains was in part fueled by the need to impose superiority over Indigenous people. [Now] different countries are coming to terms with that colonial path, and seeking to reconcile it with a more humanitarian view.”

Erik Stanfield, anthropologist for Navajo Nation, said he has a file of between 25 and 30 letters — about half from the state of Utah — requesting consultation with the tribe about possible repatriations. “We’ve gotten a big influx of NAGPRA requests just in the past couple of months,” he said.

The new regulations are “going to cause a gigantic explosion in our responsibilities,” Stanfield said, in addition to their many positive affects.

“You have this ideological perspective: ‘Yes, we have to return these things,’” he said. “Then, when you [have it] pounded into a kind of bureaucratic mold, all of a sudden it becomes this issue of property — who owns the property? It’s less about ‘These are ancestors, people that we are sending home’ — than we’re righting a wrong that was made.’”

At NHMU, Greenwald said, “We’re impelled to engage in consultation to facilitate [repatriation]. But when push comes to shove, nothing can leave our facility unless we have a claim.”

It would be “ethical,” Stanfield suggested, for museums and other institutions to “provide some resources to the tribes in order to respond to these” requests for consultation. That could include training, added staff and money to help with repatriation efforts.

“That responsibility should be on them,” Stanfield said. “The taking of these ancestors and funerary objects was all done by people on the outside, by these large museums.”

‘Preserving those stories’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Native Voices exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

Nationwide, museums are adapting, resetting and, in some cases, scrapping entire exhibits as they navigate the new NAGPRA updates. The Natural History Museum of Utah, as it notes in signage, “doesn’t exhibit human remains or objects associated with burials,” and hasn’t removed any items from exhibits.

NHMU has, Greenwald estimated, “just shy of a million” items that are culturally affiliated with Indigenous people in North America and other places. The museum does not purchase items for its collections, aside from commissioned pieces from Indigenous artists at their art market.

And Greenwald said the museum asks for extensive paperwork from donors to prove that items are collected in a “legal and ethical manner.” She notes that Indigenous artists often use tags for their artwork; dreamcatchers for sale in the museum’s gift shop have such tags.

Offering a recent example of consent and collaboration, Greenwald described NHMU’s “Native Voices” initiative, a federally funded effort that features more than 150 hours of consultation with 14 different tribes, including the eight tribes recognized by the state of Utah.

The project highlights cultural artifacts, stories, traditions and people from the tribes. While creating its exhibit, Greenwald said, museum curators learned details from the Indigenous Advisory Council that they might otherwise have overlooked, such as the importance of putting it on the ground floor or placing it in a circular space.

When visitors cross over a seam that separates it from the rest of the museum, Native voices and languages greet them.

The council also helped with areas where there is disagreement among tribes, Greenwald said. Some tribes, for example, prefer their cradleboards to be covered, while others don’t mind theirs being displayed, she said.

It’s “adding that Indigenous knowledge to our collections, that is, in a way, decolonizing,” said Lisbeth Louderback, NHMU’s curator of archaeology. “We are storing and preserving those stories.”