SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — ProPublica, a nonprofit journalism organization, recently published a database detailing the progress of museums and other institutions nationwide in returning indigenous people’s remains to their descendants’ tribes. According to the database, which tracks institutions that receive federal funding, Seton Hall University in South Orange is leading New Jersey institutions in the number of remains not made available for return at 13. Twenty remains have been made available for return, marking 61 percent of the university’s collection.
In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which created a process for tribes to request the return of their ancestors’ remains and artifacts from museums and other institutions that had them.
According to Seton Hall University spokesperson Laurie Pine, the university has had great success following the NAGPRA and continues its efforts to repatriate indigenous remains and artifacts.
“Seton Hall University has committed to the repatriation of all funerary objects and the earthly remains of all Native Americans that have come into our possession. We have been working diligently and respectfully on the repatriation of the earthly remains and funerary objects with three Delaware nations: the Delaware Tribe of Indians, the Delaware Nation in Oklahoma and the Stockbridge Munsee Community. They are all equally descendants of the Lenape nation, the ancient people whose artifacts we have, but they are quite separate communities, based in Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Wisconsin,” Pine told the newspaper on Jan. 30. “With reverence we have pursued the process of identification, documentation and notification under the strictures of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. To date, we have successfully made available for return 1,023 of the 1,029 funerary objects in our possession — 99 percent — and the earthly remains of 20 of the 33 identified individuals — 61 percent. We have been in contact and have been visited by tribal representatives, who have encouraged us to keep working diligently on repatriation as they prepare for the ceremonial return of the remains of their ancestors.
“We are not legally allowed to schedule a repatriation ceremony at this time. Most recently, in November 2022, we filed an updated list of the NAGPRA materials we hold with the park service. They have until March to publish that inventory in the federal register. Then, there is a 60-day comment period, where other tribes are permitted to file claims to these materials. If there are no other claims, in May we will be allowed to proceed with physically returning the remains and belongings to the tribes with whom we have consulted,” she continued. “This bureaucratic process exists to ensure that museums do not show preferential treatment to particular tribes, and every tribe has the opportunity to lay claim to materials they believe fall within their cultural heritage. The tribes we have consulted with have been wonderful to work with on this important matter. This summer we anticipate being able to schedule the repatriation ceremony in consultation with the tribes.”
On Oct. 13, 2022, the U.S. Department of the Interior proposed revisions to the NAGPRA to streamline requirements for museums and federal agencies to inventory and identify human remains and cultural items in their collections.
“The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is an important law that helps us heal from some of the more painful times in our past by empowering tribes to protect what is sacred to them,” Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland said on Oct. 13. “These changes to the department’s NAGPRA regulations are long overdue and will strengthen our ability to enforce the law and help tribes in the return of ancestors and sacred cultural objects.”
“Repatriation is a sacred responsibility for many indigenous communities. After consulting with tribal nations across the United States, the National Park Service welcomes additional input on improvements to the NAGPRA regulations,” National Park Service Director Chuck Sams said Oct. 13. “We hope these changes will make it easier for proper repatriation and reburial of indigenous ancestors and cultural items.”
To view the ProPublica database and for more information on this matter, visit projects.propublica.org/repatriation-nagpra-database/.