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Iowa, 1971. Construction workers unearth the skeletal remains of 26 white settlers and one Native American woman and her baby. The remains of the 26 settlers are buried in a local cemetery. The remains of the Native woman and her child are sent to the state archaeologist for study.

Libby Miller

This was far from the first time the remains of Native people had been treated disrespectfully in the U.S. But it was the catalyst for the most important legislation concerning Native American cultural identity since the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act and the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act—otherwise known as NAGPRA—states any museum or institution receiving federal funds must return human remains and other objects to their original communities. These include direct descendants, culturally related tribes and Native Hawaiian groups.

Libby Miller, director of the Maxey Museum and Whitman NAGPRA coordinator, believes this work, while challenging, can also be reparative. Museums, including the Maxey Museum, never had a right to Native ancestral remains and other cultural objects in the first place. Returning them so they can be reburied according to cultural customs is a step toward healing centuries of injustice toward Native communities.

NAGPRA and Whitman’s Maxey Museum

Miller, whose doctorate in art history focused on modern Egyptian art, has long been interested in decolonial museum practices. “Museum spaces can be the ways we engage thoughtfully and respectfully with the past,” she says. “They can become sites for reparative justice and storytelling about who we are and how we connect to each other and build community in the present.”

When NAGPRA passed, the Maxey Museum had been underfunded, underutilized and mostly ignored. In fact, its nearly 4,000 artifacts weren’t even cataloged—and, as Miller points out, “You can’t repatriate anything if you don’t know what you have.”

In the 1990s, Whitman hired a museum registrar to catalog its artifacts. Jennifer Karson Engum, a cultural anthropologist and NAGPRA coordinator for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR), has also served as a consultant for NAGPRA work. In 2008, Engum oversaw on Whitman’s behalf a large repatriation to the CTUIR of ancestral remains and associated funerary objects. Most of these had been excavated along the Columbia River in the 1940s prior to the construction of the McNary Dam.

When Miller became director of the museum in 2017, she focused on showing how the museum could be pedagogically relevant, also taking over as NAGPRA coordinator.

That same year, her NAGPRA work took on a greater importance with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between Whitman and the CTUIR to formalize an ongoing partnership.

The Need for Repatriation

More than 30 years after NAGPRA passed, U.S. museums still have by some estimates hundreds of thousands of remains in need of repatriation.

Repatriation involves a certain level of detective work due to poor record-keeping. As a result, museum curators rely on a combination of archival research and calling around to find the provenance of remains. In more contentious cases, DNA testing is sometimes used, although tribes and museum curators agree that remains should be disturbed as little as possible.

Miller has been working to repatriate a human cranium that was in the museum’s collections. In the accession records, it was listed simply as “Skull, human. Arizona.” Without further information, Miller and the previous NAGPRA consultant assumed it was Native.

Miller first looked in the Whitman College archives for files pertaining to the donor in the hopes that she would find clues. That was unsuccessful. Miller then contacted the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona, partly on what proved to be erroneous information that their Tribal Historic Preservation Office had carried out repatriations where there was no clear cultural affiliation. They agreed to consult with Miller despite the unclear provenance of the artifact.

The Gila River Cultural Resource Specialist asked Miller to do a consultation with an osteologist, who came to Whitman to visually examine the skull. Based on teeth wear patterns, dental work and facial structure, the osteologist determined the cranium was not Native.

The work has been humbling. “You get things wrong a lot,” Miller says. For instance, the Maxey Museum catalog, which dates back to the 1990s, referred to human remains in ways that, while standard at the time, are now considered culturally insensitive. One repatriation specialist Miller worked with called out the catalog’s frequent use of “skeleton” and “skull,” which evoke spooky Halloween imagery more than the reality of their humanity.

“It’s stuff like that where you just have to be able to say, ‘Yup, you’re right. I will try to do better,” Miller says. She has been talking to the Whitman archivist about how to amend the catalogs so they are both more accessible and more respectful.

A Basis for Reparation

Repatriation can’t right the historical wrongs or restore what was lost. Yet the respectful reburial of stolen ancestral remains is necessary to begin the work of cultural and spiritual reparation.

For Miller, the work of NAGPRA is important not only for the tribes whose ancestors and culture has been damaged by colonial practices, but also for the colonizers.

“I think there’s an ethical obligation to where you can let NAGPRA be a foundation upon which to build new relationships,” she says. “That requires not just applying NAGPRA to the letter of the law, but having an ethical commitment to repatriation. And I think that’s better for the spiritual health for not only your tribal partners, but also for institutions like Whitman.”