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'The continuance of care': Complexities of repatriation and return, for Indigenous ancestors and human remains

A man in a hat and life vest is sitting at the edge of a boat. He is holding a photo of a map system of the Missouri River. There are bluffs behind him.
Kassidy Arena
Greg Olson shows a map to two groups of students riding in boats on the Missouri River Friday, Sept. 8, 2023. The map symbolized the multitude of Indigenous communities who lived around the river before being forcibly removed from the state.

*A note from the reporter: This story was meant to be driven entirely by Indigenous and Native voices. These perspectives are what the Indigenous peoples I spoke with want to focus on within the topic of repatriations.

Greg Olson sat on a boat in the Missouri River. He pointed up at a small red pictograph on the bluffs that line the river. The red mark, similar to the Nike "swoosh," curves around a red dot. The meaning is unclear today, but Olson spoke with the students on the boat with him about the rich history of the people who created that mark.

Olson recently released his book "Indigenous Missourians: Ancient Societies to the Present" after 30 years of research and conversations with Indigenous people. But, he said, one thing to understand is that the 12,000 year history of Native Missourians featured in his book is not just history. It's also present day.

“Non-Indians, a lot of times don't know that we're still here," Iowa Tribe member Lance Foster said. "They don't really consider us, in their mind the same people as our ancestors who rode horses and shot buffalo and all that. Somehow, in their mind, there's a disconnect between Native Americans today and the Native Americans in their mythology and history."

Native Americans inhabited Missouri lands well before it gained its statehood. Olson said he found within his research there was a law in Missouri that made it illegal to be Indigenous without federal permission. So they were forcibly removed and were persecuted in the state for many years.

According to the MU Museum of Anthropology, tribes known to have lived in or traveled through the state include:
Otoe-Missouria Tribe, The Osage Nation, Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma, Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska, Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma, Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa, Delaware Nation, Quapaw Tribe, Kaw Nation, Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas, Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma, Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas, Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma, Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, Cherokee Nation, The Chickasaw Nation, The Choctaw Nation, Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, Absentee-Shawnee Tribe, Eastern Shawnee Tribe, Shawnee Tribe, Pawnee Nation, Omaha Tribe of Nebraska.

The Ioway people are descended from Indigenous peoples who lived for a time in northern Missouri. Archaeologists have evidence they once inhabited the land by the Missouri River.

The bluffs of the river are high from the ground. Trees surround the bottom.
Kassidy Arena
The pictograph is only visible while on the Missouri river. It is high on the bluffs that line the river. The red paint was made from a mix of rock sediment and water.

Not just history

Lance Foster said one of those present-day stories is the process of returning the human remains of Native ancestors that were disturbed from their resting places to their rightful homes and people.

"There's this deep feeling when people try to take that [history] from us," he said. "It feels like continuing to damage something that we were just recovering from and trying to rebuild from."

According to the National Park Service, which keeps track of repatriations, MU holds thousands of Native American human remains. The MU Museum of Anthropology states many of those human remains are cultural unidentifiable. That means a big part of the museum's work is communicating with tribes known to have lived in the state or moved through it to determine affiliation.

But one Indigenous tribal historic preservation officer said there is something more important to focus on than the numbers.

Why do these institutions have our ancestors? And why were they dug up in the first place and moved?
Elsie Whitehorn

“Just the original backstory of why all that took place in the first place is it needs to be known and needs to be taught to people," said Elsie Whitehorn, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Otoe Missouria tribe—the people from whom the state got its name. They are now based in Red Rock, Oklahoma.

She recently rebranded her department as Woska Wokigo, which translates to "all things Jiwere Nut'achi (Otoe-Missouria) all the time."

“I think a lot of times what gets missed is the whole historic background behind NAGPRA, like why do these institutions have our ancestors? And why were they dug up in the first place and moved? And you know, that part, a lot of people don't know that," Whitehorn said.

And the reason why these institutions have those human remains of ancestors is due to poor archeological practices in the past and looting (both past and present). So human remains and funeral items ended up in museums and institutions across the country—including MU. And some of those are not distant ancestors, but people's grandparents.

A man holds up a photo of a map of the river system. There are little circles every once in a while on the lines that signify waterways.
Nate Brown
Curators of the University of Missouri
Greg Olson holds a picture of the Missouri River water system. The circles on the map indicate where Indigenous people had settlements. Although many times, Olson said, they were also travelers who would live temporarily in locations.

A federal law requires institutions and museums to ensure tribes have an opportunity to repatriate or return ancestors’ human remains and cultural items. It’s called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA. It was passed in 1990 after intensive civil rights work by Native Americans across the country.

Sarah O’Donnell, the NAGPRA Coordinator for the Osage Nation’s Historic Preservation Office, said the law allows for Native Nations to determine best practices for how their ancestors will be repatriated. The Osage were forcibly removed from Missouri in the 1800s.

“Each tribe then, really decides how to consult according to their own cultures and traditions. And it is this, I think, a really, really important and highly significant civil rights law that all of the tribes get to engage with today," O'Donnell said.

NAGPRA processes use cultural and geographic evidence to determine who the human remains or ancestors were taken from. This law has not remained constant, however, and is currently undergoing changes that affect the designated importance of cultural and geographic evidence in the process.

The complexities of NAGPRA and repatriations

One of Whitehorn’s many hats is to oversee and maintain relationships with institutions to continue repatriations of the tribe’s ancestors. She said these relationships are part of honoring those who came before her.

“That continuance of caring, and understanding and being aware of our ancestors, and where we come from, in our struggle in our history, and how we survived as a people, because all through the challenges and everything that they went through, you know, we're blessed to be here today in understanding that. It's really meaningful," she said.

The Otoe Missouria public affairs officer said they have completed several repatriations between 1999 and 2000.

All nations and tribes have different processes and rituals when it comes to NAGPRA and repatriations—even the language they use is different. For example, one tribe may prefer the word ancestors, where another may prefer the phrase human remains. Both refer to the humans and their resting places that were looted and desecrated by past archeologists and looters.

But as an individual from Quapaw said: Repatriations are slow and laborious. MU is holding many Native American human remains, but there’s more to it than that. Most times, Native Nations and tribes have small historic preservation offices and limited resources, so they sometimes rely on the institution to safely house the human remains of their ancestors. And NAGPRA grants, which can help fund these processes, are highly competitive. She added they want to repatriate the human remains as whole as possible and with dignity.

A Native American burial mound can be found in a park in Boonville, Missouri.
Caroline McCone
Columbia Missourian
A Native American burial mound can be found in a park in Boonville, Missouri. It overlooks the Missouri River.

Candace Sall, the director of the Museum of Anthropology and the American Archaeology Division at MU, works with about 23 different tribes. She said the first step to following NAGPRA processes is to consult, preferably in person, with the tribes.

“Some tribes may wish to have their remains back immediately, others it may take time, they may want to re-bury them here in Missouri or they may want to take them back to their current homelands. So we work with each tribe individually on what works best for them," Sall said.

The MU Museum along with the tribes are set to consult on 500 individuals by the end of this year and through the beginning of next year.

The individual from Quapaw said there's no value in pointing fingers anymore at who disturbed the rest of these individuals, and that the focus should be on healing and honoring the way Indigenous people go about their processes. For some, though, it is still frustrating how slow the process can be.

All of these folks said repatriations processes through NAGPRA are full of history, culture and complexities that need to be understood and acknowledged. And many Indigenous peoples said Missouri has a lot of work to do in learning about Indigenous history and applying it to today.

For the audio transcript, click here.

Kassidy Arena was the Engagement Producer for KBIA from 2022-2023. In her role, she reported and produced stories highlighting underrepresented communities, focused on community outreach and promoting media literacy. She was born in Berkeley, California, raised in Omaha, Nebraska and graduated with a degree in Journalism at the University of Missouri, Columbia.
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