UNC-Chapel Hill’s archeology labs continue to hold the remains of hundreds of Native Americans
Remains representing more than 600 Native American individuals sit in collections at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Research Laboratories of Archeology — the state’s oldest North Carolina-focused archeology center. Those remains have not been made available for return to tribes, despite a federal law intended to facilitate the repatriation of Native ancestors and related funerary artifacts.
A national investigation published earlier this year by ProPublica found many of the nation's top universities and museums continue to hold the remains of Native American people in their collections. Only about half of the more than 200,000 human remains collected across the country have been made available for return to tribes.
In North Carolina, that return rate is even lower. Three decades after Congress passed NAGPRA — the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act — less than 30% of ancestral remains held in institutions have been made available for return.
Institutions in the state continue to hold more than 1,200 of these human remains, along with thousands of funerary artifacts, in their collections. UNC’s Research Laboratories of Archaeology holds the largest share of these unrepatriated remains.
The roots of NAGPRA
Before NAGPRA, Native American graves were commonly looted in the name of science and research, said Ann Kakaliouras, who earned her Ph.D. in Anthropology at UNC and now teaches at Whittier College in California specializing in repatriation issues.
“Large archeological programs literally built themselves on the mass excavation of indigenous remains throughout the country,” she said.
There are deep correlations between colonialism and the rise in popularity of archeology, according to Kakaliouras.
“It actually took Native activism in the 1960s and 70s to wake archeology up to the idea that Indigenous people in North America are interested in their ancestors,” she said.
After these decades of activism, Congress passed NAGPRA in 1990. The law was intended to stop the desecration of Native gravesites and to ensure that human remains "must at all times be treated with dignity and respect." It required returning the remains of Native Americans to affiliated tribes.
All institutions that receive federal funding must comply with NAGPRA — from large national museums to state colleges or even local governments.
Protecting sacred objects
On a May morning, Shana Bushyhead Condill walked by the glowing display cases in the Museum of the Cherokee Indian on the Qualla Boundary in Western North Carolina.
Since NAGPRA’s passage, institutions have made remains and artifacts available for return to tribes, including more than 10,000 remains to Condill’s community — the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
“Just hearing that number is hard to process,” Condill said, her voice heavy with emotion. “Thinking about the ancestors that have had their journey disrupted, and are many times in boxes and basements of institutions, that's hard to just comprehend on a human level.”
It’s been a little over two years since Condill took over as executive director of the museum, after four years at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Her work spans the intersection of public education and the preservation of precious — and sometimes private — objects.
Until recently, those museum displays showcased artifacts that had been on view for years. But in 2022, as part of the museum’s ongoing exhibit “Disruption,” Condill and her staff decided to remove sacred and funeral-related items from public view and replace them with modern art produced by Cherokee artists.
“What we know is that when objects are fully intact — if it's pottery, or effigy pots, or that kind of a thing, gorgets — that generally they come from a grave site,” Condill said. “I would rather default to removing objects from view than to have something mistakenly on view.”
Some artifacts are available for private viewings in the museum archive by families with historic ties to the object. In 1999, as an intern at the National Museum of the American Indian’s Cultural Resources Center, Condill witnessed artifacts being held and sung to. Others were stored under muslin to “allow the objects to continue to breathe without being seen.” She saw value in these interactions.
What we know is that when objects are fully intact — if it's pottery, or effigy pots, or that kind of a thing, gorgets — that generally they come from a grave site. I would rather default to removing objects from view than to have something mistakenly on view.Shana Bushyhead Condill
“So, we try to facilitate that as well with a family who wants to come in and see their objects and have a connection with them and hold them in their hands,” she said. “Sixth-generation weavers coming out and being able to interact with their objects is really amazing.”
Bringing Cherokee ancestors home
As Condill cares for ceremonial items at the museum, the team in the Eastern Band’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office manages efforts to reclaim the community’s ancestors.
Miranda Panther, the tribe’s NAGPRA officer who is not a member of the tribe, sees her work as a way to protect human rights.
“I got a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and I went to grad school for social work. So you might think that's not necessarily something that's related, but I view NAGPRA, and the work that we do here more as advocating for people who aren't able to advocate for themselves,” she said.
She added: “I take that aspect of the job really seriously. And I always try to do what's right by them, the best thing that we can after all of this time when mistakes have been made, or they've been languishing on shelves, in different institutions and museums.”
Once repatriation is initiated, the process can last years. The shortest repatriation Panther worked on took one year, with the longest extending for about a decade. She said a number of factors can draw out repatriation, like high staff turnover or a lack of needed staff expertise at the institution holding the remains.
But Panther is patient and organized. Her office has brought home thousands of ancestors to be reburied. Sometimes, reburials take place one at a time. Other times, more than 100 remains may be reburied at once. Reburial is always the ultimate goal, Panther said.
“Even though some of the ancestors that we're burying might be 10,000 years old, or a couple-hundred years old, they're still Cherokee. They're still a person,” Panther said. “Not only did they not ask to be disturbed, and I'm sure had no expectation that something like that would ever happen and that their graves would be looted and disrespected, but we want to make sure and try and right that wrong as best as we can, and get them back to them being at peace.”
For the Eastern Band, reburials are solemn ceremonies carried out according to Cherokee cultural beliefs. Women are not allowed to be present, Panther said. The events are largely private, to prevent looting and to ensure the ancestors are not disturbed again.
“It's a very honorable job that we have. And so we all take that very seriously,” she said.
Hundreds of ancestral remains at UNC-CH
Three-hundred miles east in Chapel Hill, UNC-CH’s Research Laboratories of Archaeology has repatriated only 40% of the more than 1,000 Native American remains it reported in federal NAGPRA filings.
Margaret Scarry, who heads UNC-CH’s Research Laboratories of Archaeology, said the practice of research around burial sites has changed significantly since the lab’s origins in the 1930s. The school’s archaeologists and students have not excavated graves since the mid-1980s, she said. Instead, new technologies like GIS and ground-penetrating radar allow researchers to examine history without disturbing sacred grounds.
Still, her labs at UNC continue to hold the remains of more than 600 Native American individuals that have not been made available for return to tribes. Scarry said every one of those remains is considered culturally unaffiliated — a designation that ProPublica called a “loophole”because the law does not require institutions to initiate repatriation of unaffiliated remains.
“We have deemed them unaffiliated because we don't have the evidence to be sure which federal tribes they would be most related to, but they are available for return following the NAGPRA procedures,” she said.
For unaffiliated remains to be returned, tribes must proactively reach out to the institutions. Scarry said affiliation is complicated and that “it's not always a simple matter to map archaeological sites onto modern tribes.”
Melanie O'Brien is the program manager for the National NAGPRA. In reviewing the university’s federal files, she said “It doesn't seem that UNC has done a lot of work to allow repatriation of the ancestors in their inventory.”
Others slow to repatriate
UNC-CH is not alone in holding onto remains. In the more than 30 years since the law’s passage, the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology in Raleigh has only made 20 remains available for return — a fraction of the more than 250 remains left in its collection.
There are a number of factors that allow institutions to drag their feet when it comes to returning remains. A big one is that there’s little to no punishment for not meeting the law. According to ProPublica, institutions that have violated NAGPRA “have faced only minuscule fines, and some are not fined at all even after the Interior Department has found wrongdoing.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources which oversees the Office of State Archaeology declined interview requests. A statement by the office said “in recent years, the Office of State Archaeology has made repatriation a priority” and that Governor Cooper’s proposed budget includes “funding for an additional position to advance and accelerate our repatriation efforts.”
Condill, at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, recognizes that the NAGPRA process is tedious.
“I'll be the first to admit it's a time-consuming process, but there are folks that are experts in it. There are other institutions that are doing the work and doing it proactively,” she said, highlighting the progress at the museum at the University of Tennessee, which holds collections from the Tennessee Valley Authority. “I think they are doing a good job of leading the way.”
She is adamant that institutions need to return ancestors and funerary artifacts to their historic lands or communities.
“That is egregious and needs to be corrected as soon as possible.”
Law does little for state-recognized tribes
In North Carolina, repatriation is complicated by a lack of federal recognition of several tribes. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is the only North Carolina-based tribe with full federal recognition, and NAGPRA does little to help state-recognized tribes reclaim their ancestors’ remains.
Eight tribes in the state, including the Eastern Band, are state-recognized. The Catawba Nation, based in South Carolina, has historic territory that spans into North Carolina, and the Lumbee Tribe has partial federal recognition.
NAGPRA doesn’t require institutions to consult with non-federally recognized tribes. If museums or universities do want to return remains to state-recognized tribes, they would have to make a formal request to a NAGPRA review committee.
Kevin Melvin, the Lumbee Tribe’s first-ever tribal historic preservation officer, said gaining full federal recognition for the tribe would help them access remains and burial artifacts that may be associated with the Lumbee. As the tribefights for that recognition, Melvin said repatriation is not the top priority, but that receiving or reburying remains would be deeply meaningful.
“To me personally, that would be like the culmination of my life’s work,” he said.
No North Carolina state laws outline a repatriation process for state-recognized tribes.
The spokesperson for the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources said in a statement that the department is “committed to consulting with North Carolina’s state-recognized tribes and advocating to the National Park Service’s NAGPRA Review Committee for their inclusion in the repatriation process.”
Changes coming to the law
Changes are afoot at the national level. Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna now heads the U.S. Department of the Interior, making her the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary. Under her leadership, new NAGPRA regulations are expected by the end of 2023. The updated rules should address barriers to timely repatriation.
Panther, at the Eastern Band’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office, considers what these changes may mean for the band and her own work.
“I definitely hope that the burden won't be on tribes as it has been in the past,” she said. “I'm hoping that I can work myself out of a job in the next, you know, 10 or 20 years, just given how long some projects are known to take. … My next goal is international repatriation.”
And for Condill, at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, the changes represent a path toward a more just outcome.
“It's not enough anymore,” she said. “Bringing ancestors home is just humanly ethical.”