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Only 2% of Native American remains returned to tribes: Inside ASU’s repatriation record


Only 2% of Native American remains returned to tribes: Inside ASU’s repatriation record

Jun 12, 2024 | 10:03 am ET
By Sam Ellefson/Cronkite News Aspen Ford/Cronkite News
Only 2% of Native American remains returned to tribes: Inside ASU’s repatriation record
James Riding In talks about his experience with NAGPRA on April 11, 2024, in Tempe. Riding In is a professor emeritus at Arizona State University and former director of the American Indian Studies program. Photo by Chad Bradley | Cronkite News and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at ASU

Thirty-four years ago, Congress granted Native American tribes a pathway to reclaim ancestors that were dug up, stored and sometimes displayed in museums. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act or NAGPRA required American institutions to return them.

The road to repatriation has been long at Arizona State University. The university has made under 2% of its Indigenous human remains available to Native American tribes, among the lowest rates in the nation, according to an investigation by Cronkite News and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at ASU.

ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change is built on the lands of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, whose ancestors stewarded the desert landscape for millennia.

About two miles south sits the school’s Center for Archaeology and Society Repository, one of four locations that hold the remains of some 800 Native Americans – none of which have yet been made available to be returned to their descendants.

To find out why, investigative journalism students with Cronkite News and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at ASU reviewed hundreds of pages of records from archives and open records requests, and interviewed dozens of people connected to the university’s compliance with NAGPRA.
The investigation found that:

  • Until 2018, ASU worked primarily on repatriating the remains and artifacts held by federal agencies that were housed at the university, not its own.
  • ASU tried to hire its first full-time staff position dedicated to repatriation in 2019 but did not fill the position until 2022. At first, the contracting office did not understand why the position was needed, records show. Then, the pandemic derailed the process.
  • In 2019, ASU acknowledged that its initial assessments of Native American collections were likely inaccurate and actually held even more remains and artifacts than previously thought.
  • In reports to the National Park Service in 2020, which oversees NAGPRA, ASU disclosed that it had lost track of some Native American remains; that some remains were stored in old boxes and ripped bags; and that wastewater entered the collections room in one facility and flooded the library. The disclosures raise questions about the university’s care in handling the ancestors and artifacts in its collections.
  • Since 2021, new leadership has worked to accurately count collections, improve how human remains and artifacts are stored and tracked, and increase the staff dedicated to repatriation.

The university’s compliance with NAGPRA is at odds with its history. Key university officials – including a former dean of the law school and a prominent ASU archaeologist – played major roles in drafting and passing NAGPRA.

James Riding In, a co-founder and former director of ASU’s American Indian Studies program and a citizen of the Pawnee Nation who has written extensively on repatriation and NAGPRA, called ASU’s inaction “immoral and unethical” and was highly critical of what he sees as a lack of commitment to repatriation.

“I’m shocked that ASU has not moved forward with repatriation,” Riding In said of the university’s own collections. “It’s appalling.”

In a statement to Cronkite News and the Howard Center, ASU did not address questions about the university’s prior record.

“Nationally, some higher education institutions and museums remain disengaged and unsupportive of the repatriation process. That is not ASU,” Jacob Moore, ASU’s vice president and special advisor to the president for American Indian Affairs, said in the statement. “We are fully engaged and supportive of the repatriation process and are respectfully fulfilling the tenets of NAGPRA.”

Representatives of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa and the Gila River tribal nations declined to comment about their relationships with the university.

ASU’s NAGPRA record

Up until the late 20th century, archaeologists in North America legally excavated Indigenous grave sites, collecting objects and human remains to store in their repositories for decades to come. Some excavations were sanctioned for development purposes, others were done for funded scientific research.

After several years of debate among Indigenous activists, archaeologists and Congress, NAGPRA was passed in November 1990.

NAGPRA required institutions to inventory Native American remains, along with any artifacts they were buried with, and create itemized lists within five years for an “expeditious return.” It also mandated that institutions return other artifacts that tribes considered sacred or of special cultural value.

Once inventories of remains and burial objects were complete, institutions were required to publish a notice in the Federal Register and begin consulting about repatriation with tribes considered to be culturally affiliated.

Since 1990, ASU has published only three notices in the Federal Register alerting tribes to human remains and funerary objects that could be returned to them, according to federal records. The first two came simultaneously in 2009. The next one came in 2023, 14 years later.

Those notices identified the remains of only 15 individuals and 32 burial objects, or roughly 2% of its NAGPRA collection. That rate puts ASU in the bottom quarter of institutions nationally. Among institutions with similar numbers of remains, only one has a lower rate than ASU’s.

John McClelland, the former NAGPRA coordinator for the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona, said that ASU now finds itself in a difficult position, having to convey the “very disturbing” realities of its failure to comply with the law to tribes whose ancestors remain on ASU’s shelves.

“The only solution to that is being as open as you can,” McClelland said. “Offer genuine apologies where they are appropriate and continue to build a relationship of trust because this process cannot succeed if there’s not a relationship of trust.”

ASM, with a much larger collection than ASU’s, made available for repatriation roughly half of its collection of Native American remains and 90% of its burial objects, according to an analysis of park service records. Since 1990, it has published more than 50 Federal Register notices alerting tribes of remains and artifacts that belonged to them.

In a statement June 4, ASU’s Moore wrote that ASU was making progress.

“While the initial data in your report captures where we are with NAGPRA according to public records, it does not paint a complete picture of the comprehensive approach required to respectfully return ancestors,” Moore said. “We are directly engaged in the intense and confidential consultation needed to repatriate the artifacts in an appropriate manner. There is much work to be done, but we have made great progress and fostered meaningful relationships with tribal partners that are not reflected in the national NAGPRA numbers.”

ASU declined, without explanation, multiple requests to make archaeology staff available for interviews and instead outlined its recent efforts to comply with NAGPRA in a written statement March 20.

In a press release on ASU News, published the same day as the statement, the university said it did not grant interviews about repatriation at the request of tribes.

ASU also declined a request for reporters reporting on NAGPRA for a class to tour the anthropological collections at the repository. The facility is closed but allows such tours for ASU students in the context of a class.

As of May 28, the university had also not fulfilled a public records request submitted Feb. 2 for staffing, budgetary and other records associated with its collections.

Cronkite News and the Howard Center, however, obtained hundreds of pages of federal records through a Freedom of Information Act request to the park service that shed light on ASU’s collections and NAGPRA record.

Those documents included applications for federal NAGPRA grants in 2019 and 2023, along with progress reports from 2020 to 2023.

Separately, Timothy McKeown, a legal anthropologist who has been deeply involved in implementing NAGPRA since 1991, provided Cronkite News with a database of institutional holdings of Native American remains and burial objects, including ASU’s, that he obtained through FOIA requests.

ASU: Collection inventories inaccurate and out of date

Records reviewed by Cronkite News show that ASU did help repatriate some Native American collections – just not its own.

In a March 2023 NAGPRA grant application with the park service, the university said “virtually all” its NAGPRA compliance efforts had focused on the collections of federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Reclamation, adding that much work remained to repatriate the ancestors and artifacts in its own collections.

Some institutions around the country failed to repatriate Native American remains and artifacts because they said they could not identify where they had come from or to whom they belonged.

ASU did not have this problem, according to the database reviewed by Cronkite News and the Howard Center. ASU reported to the park service that virtually all the human remains and artifacts in its collection came from Maricopa County and were associated with the Huhugam, the ancestral people of the Salt River and Gila River tribes surrounding Phoenix.

As for the size of its collection, ASU told the park service in 2019 that its initial inventories were erroneous, contained inaccurate information about the numbers of human remains and funerary objects and had not been revised since they were created in the 1990s.

One of the key tenets of NAGPRA was that institutions hold respectful consultations with tribes about the human remains and artifacts in their collections.

ASU met with representatives of Arizona’s four southern tribes – the Gila River Indian Community, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, the Ak-Chin Indian Community and the Tohono O’odham Nation – in the fall of 2018 to enlist tribal support for its 2019 grant application to the park service. The meeting included the former curator of collections and Moore, ASU’s VP for tribal relations.

The tribes supported the university’s grant application at the meeting, according to the university’s account, and provided a letter of support with the application.

However, ASU told the park service that it had not kept detailed records of consultations with tribes in years prior, raising questions about how engaged ASU was with tribal communities prior to 2018.

David Martínez, a member of the Akimel O’odham and Hia-Ced O’odham tribes, is a professor of American Indian Studies at ASU who collaborated with the university’s archaeologists on a digital archive of Huhugam culture.

“ASU has been dragging its feet with respect to the collections that it holds,” Martínez said in an interview. “There are institutions everywhere that have been dragging their feet for the last 30 years. It was astounding the amount of items that are still held in these collections that haven’t been touched at all by NAGPRA.”

Misplaced remains, uncatalogued collections and a wastewater flood

ASU’s grant filings to the park service also raise questions about the manner in which the university stored and safeguarded Native American human remains prior to 2021.

The university said in a progress report from December 2021 that its archaeological collections and records had not been properly housed for long-term preservation, as required by federal standards and professional museum practices. The collection’s archaeological records were also incomplete, the report noted.

ASU’s collections were spread between four different buildings, according to a 2020 progress report. Two of the buildings were in poor condition and did not have adequate space for NAGPRA work, the report said. That meant collections housed in those buildings had to be brought to an off-campus facility, which the report said was “of inadequate size for all of the concurrent NAGPRA projects.” While human remains were mainly housed in one building, the report noted that additional ancestors were “still being found in mixed bulk archaeological collections” in the other three spaces.

Some collections and human remains appeared to have been moved from their original locations without being tracked in a database, the progress report said, and the older inventories seemed to only be based on site reports or databases created without physically verifying what was in the collections. Parts of collections, including human remains, had not been cataloged, according to the report.

Some boxes weren’t marked or tracked in a database, the report said, and the database frequently listed incorrect physical locations of remains and items. Many items did not include details about land status or ownership, the report said without elaborating.

As for the boxes themselves, they were in bad shape, too. ASU’s 2019 grant application included money for new storage materials because “many of the ASU NAGPRA-related object collections and human remains are housed in old boxes and original paper bags which are beginning to rip.”

In June 2020, one of the four buildings housing Native American collections, known as the Alameda curation facility, flooded with shallow wastewater. “Water entered the main collections room and flooded the library, although no collections were directly damaged,” ASU reported to the park service in December 2020. The university did not elaborate on the severity of the damage in subsequent reports.

In follow-up questions, ASU declined to comment on the flood or the current state of its collections beyond what it said in its March statement to Cronkite News and the Howard Center.

“Our number one priority at the repository is living up to our NAGPRA responsibilities,” Christopher Caseldine, curator of collections for the Center for Archaeology and Society Repository, wrote in the statement. “We are the caretakers of Native American ancestors and their belongings until they go home.”

A failed search for help

In 2019, ASU told the park service that it had “an insufficient amount of staff for the substantial amount of NAGPRA work it needed to do in the years ahead,” and required money to hire a dedicated NAGPRA specialist. At the time, ASU’s archaeological repository had only one staff member.

The park service awarded ASU nearly $90,000 – more than half of which was to be used to hire a NAGPRA collections specialist.

The effort quickly became mired in delays when, according to the first progress report ASU submitted to the park service, various hiring officials were unaware of NAGPRA or what it required.

The university’s contracting office first rejected the candidate ASU selected because the office was unfamiliar with NAGPRA and did not see the need for the repository to hire a contractor, the report stated.

The then-curator of the repository appealed the decision to the contracting office’s supervisor, but that person was also unfamiliar with NAGPRA, according to the report.

The then-curator reached out to the departmental business team at the university – including the senior business manager, the grant specialist and a human resources representative – but they weren’t able to help and said that it might not be possible to hire a contractor to fill the role.

Frustrated with the delay, the candidate withdrew their application. After that, the pandemic impeded the search, the report noted.

Despite working remotely, the then-curator of collections and a postdoctoral scholar in the school made “substantial progress” documenting NAGPRA materials, namely by creating a “detailed and transparent system for recording human remains and estimating age at death, sex, and minimum number of individuals,” according to the December 2020 progress report.

ASU involved in NAGPRA’s beginnings

ASU’s NAGPRA record over the first 30 years of the law’s existence contrasts with the university’s deep engagement with NAGPRA’s passage. Key ASU faculty testified in favor of the law before Congress, and several were part of a historic dialogue that formulated some of the law’s guiding principles.

Beginning in December 1988, the Heard Museum in Phoenix hosted a year-long dialogue between Native Americans and museum representatives to resolve serious differences over how human remains should be repatriated.

The dialogue included two professors from ASU’s anthropology department and two professors from ASU’s law school. In February 1990, the panel sent a report to Congress that said respect for Native human rights should be the paramount principle when a tribe says it has a cultural affiliation with human remains or objects in a museum’s collection.

“Our hope is that this will result in solutions that will meet outstanding Native American concerns while allowing scientific investigation in appropriate situations,” the authors of the report wrote at the time. “Our further hope is that the adoption of these recommendations will lead to a new era of cooperation rather than conflict between Indian nations and museums with consequent benefits to both and to the general public.”

The panel’s moderator, the then-dean of ASU’s law school and a Heard Museum trustee, went on to endorse NAGPRA’s passage before the Senate committee considering the legislation in 1990.

That year and in the years prior, however, some members of the archaeological community were raising concerns about what a law like NAGPRA would mean for scientific research.

Others, such as former ASU archaeologist Keith Kintigh, were advocates for the statute.

Kintigh testified at Senate and House hearings on the drafting of NAGPRA the year it was adopted. At the time, he chaired a repatriation committee at the Society for American Archaeology, and appeared in that capacity when he testified in favor of NAGPRA before the congressional committees.

“Anthropologists are painfully aware that repatriation results in the destruction of information about the past,” Kintigh said during the House hearing. “However, we recognize that where a modern group has a reasonably clear affiliation, that group’s desire to control its own heritage takes precedence over scientific and public interests.”

Kintigh’s sway with the archaeological community played a critical role in NAGPRA’s passage, according to McKeown, a member of the NAGPRA review committee who wrote a book about the four years leading up to the repatriation law and worked on implementing it for decades.

For all its promise, NAGPRA did not resolve how institutions and tribes should treat human remains that institutions believed were not clearly identified with present-day tribes.

Some tribes came to believe that institutions were failing to recognize obvious descendants of tribes that were relocated or displaced, allowing institutions to sidestep NAGPRA requirements and avoid consultations with tribes.

The issue simmered in the first years of NAGPRA and splintered the coalition between Native Americans and institutions that led to NAGPRA’s passage.

In the early 2000s, ASU’s law school led a dialogue between tribes and institutions to mediate the issue.

The park service made two attempts to adopt new regulations about so-called culturally unidentifiable human remains in the mid-to-late 2000s. But it faced fierce opposition from the museum and archaeological communities, including the Society for American Archaeology.

In 2008, ASU’s Kintigh called the proposed rules on culturally unidentifiable remains a serious threat and urged the society to fight them “in every way we can,” he wrote in SAA’s magazine. Kintigh served as president of the society from 1999 to 2001.

“SAA has consistently used a moderate tone in its repatriation positions,” Kintigh wrote. “Strategic considerations and our responsibilities to the archaeological record demand that we now play ‘hard ball.’”

The park service finally adopted a new rule on culturally unidentifiable remains in 2010. That same year, ASU hosted a national conference on the 20th anniversary of NAGPRA’s passage, attracting a who’s who of Native American scholars, legal professionals and advocates.

The park service ultimately did away entirely with the designation of culturally unidentifiable remains in a revision of NAGPRA that went into effect in January.

Cronkite News and the Howard Center interviewed Kintigh and another former ASU archaeologist to learn more about the university’s NAGPRA record after 1990.

Kintigh confirmed he was the chair of the Society for American Archaeology’s task force on repatriation when NAGPRA was passed and was intensely involved in drafting the legislation, advocating for the interests of the scientific community and working to find a balance between traditional interests – those of lineal descendants and contemporary tribes – and “what we believed, and I still believe, are valid scientific and public interests.”

Kintigh worked at ASU for more than three decades, beginning in 1987. Despite his involvement in the drafting and passage of NAGPRA, he said he did not work on repatriation for the university or inquire about ASU’s compliance in regards to its own collections.

“We were mainly coordinating with the federal agencies,” Kintigh said. “I think my understanding when I retired was that we had done what we were supposed to do.”

Cronkite News and the Howard Center also interviewed Frank McManamon, another retired ASU archaeologist with extensive NAGPRA credentials.

McManamon led the Center for Digital Antiquity at ASU, a research center aimed at preserving digital records of archaeological resources, from 2009 to 2019. Before coming to ASU, he served as the chief archaeologist of the park service for almost 15 years. In this role, he directly oversaw the implementation of NAGPRA from 1990 to 1999. For a brief period from late 2018 to 2019, he worked at ASU while serving as a member of the NAGPRA Review Committee.

McManamon said his many years working on NAGPRA for the park service were difficult and included uncomfortable moments where his objectivity was questioned by people from other organizations. He was reluctant to engage with repatriation work at ASU, he said.

“I didn’t actually go looking for new NAGPRA frontiers to explore or get myself involved in,” McManamon said. “I knew how complicated it could be.”

Cronkite News and the Howard Center unsuccessfully attempted to locate the former curator of the repository who wrote the 2019 NAGPRA grant application and 2020 progress report. Reporters also reached out to another archaeologist who worked as the curator of the repository in the mid-2010s who declined to comment.

NAGPRA work picks up under new director

In August 2021, ASU named a new interim curator of the repository after the unexpected resignation of the one who led the university’s 2019 NAGPRA grant.

Christopher Caseldine earned his doctorate in archaeology from ASU in 2020 and wrote his dissertation on the Hohokam in the Lower Salt River Valley.

ASU’s repatriation work accelerated under Caseldine’s direction, according to park service records.

According to a NAGPRA grant progress report from December 2021, Caseldine established more transparent and respectful communication with tribes, added staff and focused on documenting archaeological sites with fewer ancestors and artifacts to demonstrate “immediate progress” to tribes.

The report said progress had been made in producing an accurate NAGPRA inventory, that dated collection management practices had been abandoned and that “every effort is being made to reunite ancestors with their objects.” A new database tool was created to help identify materials in the collection that are subject to NAGPRA, the report said.

The progress report also said that ASU had been close to completing an inventory of remains and artifacts that were potentially associated with 15 tribes, which all received invitations to consult with the university. But then ASU discovered additional items in an off-campus facility that caused the process to be delayed.

At a meeting, representatives of the Salt River and Gila River tribes “expressed optimism by recent efforts to return ancestors and their associated funerary objects quickly and respectfully,” the progress report read. It also noted that staff intended to hold monthly meetings with the two tribes and quarterly meetings with the four southern tribes.

In March 2022, the long-delayed NAGPRA specialist finally began work after three rounds of job postings and the setbacks caused by the pandemic.

By late 2022, however, Caseldine was coming to grips with the enormous task ASU faced to comply with NAGPRA. In a letter to the park service in January 2023, Caseldine recited a litany of challenges.

Finding additional staff had proved difficult, Caseldine said, and there were only so many projects the university could do at once, regardless of resources.
The university conducted 15 job searches and multiple listings to secure enough staff, he said, and those positions were collectively costing $500,000 a year, he wrote.

He urged the park service to provide more money for institutions such as ASU to comply with NAGPRA.

Caseldine said the university was supportive of the repository’s compliance work, but it hadn’t provided enough space.

“We scaled up our work to the point that we no longer have room for additional staff or projects,” Caseldine wrote. “We have been working with the highest levels of our university administration, but additional space has yet to appear.”

In March 2023, Caseldine worked with the Arizona Board of Regents’ grant writers to submit two large grant requests to the park service. That August, the park service awarded ASU two grants totaling almost $200,000 – the largest by far of any NAGPRA grant awarded to an institution in 2023.

ASU said it planned to use the funds to hire a specialist to compile federal notices of completed inventories of human remains and burial objects and another specialist to compile inventories of artifacts of cultural significance to tribes.

In its statement to Cronkite News and the Howard Center in March, the university said it had secured more than $500,000 in internal and federal funding to support repatriation work.

Staffing for NAGPRA work has increased to six full-time employees, three part-time graduate student NAGPRA associate positions, and 11 student worker positions, the statement said. In addition, the university said that over 50 student interns have worked on NAGPRA-relevant collection inventories.

“Only individuals with human osteology training interact with Native American ancestors,” the university said in response to follow-up questions from reporters. “It is only a few of our staff to minimize access and disturbance. Undergraduate students do not interact with ancestors.”

Other progress, according to ASU’s statement, includes creating a repatriation handbook for university staff, launching an undergraduate NAGPRA learning track and developing a new museum studies master’s program focused explicitly on NAGPRA management.

The university said it has discussed both its undergraduate learning track and museum studies master’s program with tribal partners. The master’s program will provide students with formal NAGPRA training, ASU said, and will begin accepting applications this fall.

ASU’s Moore wrote that the university is also preparing for a repatriation and reburial this fall, following a cleansing ceremony it sponsored with its tribal partners.

“ASU remains committed to the repatriation of ancestors in a timely manner,” Moore said.

This story was produced by the students at the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, an initiative of the Scripps Howard Foundation in honor of the late news industry executive and pioneer Roy W. Howard.