Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Penn, Temple, Mütter among U.S. institutions still holding the remains of Native Americans

Museum leaders pledged to repatriate the remains, as required under a 1990 federal law. Critics say some institutions have been too slow to act.

An 1891 excavation at the site of the Hopewell Mounds in Ohio.
An 1891 excavation at the site of the Hopewell Mounds in Ohio.Read moreField Museum Archives via University of Nebraska-Lincoln Center for Digital Research in the Humanities Ohio Hopewell Digitization Project

Three decades after a federal law called for the return of Indigenous human remains to descendants and tribal nations, some 110,000 of those remains continue to be held by major American institutions — including the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, the Mütter Museum, and others in the Philadelphia region.

Seven institutions in Pennsylvania, mostly museums, are among those listed in a new ProPublica investigation that tracked the remains of Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Natives’ ancestors.

The investigation, conducted in partnership with NBC News, found that some museums have been slow to comply with — or, in some cases, have outright resisted — the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, which requires the return of remains, funerary objects, and cultural items, much of it looted in the 1800s.

Ann Remy, a Bucks County activist of Lenni-Lenape descent who works in the Coalition of Natives and Allies, said people have long been painfully aware that local institutions were keeping remains.

“Our elders, they avoided all those different museums,” Remy said Thursday. “They have almost like cemeteries in their basements.”

ProPublica found that about 200 institutions in the country had not repatriated any of the remains of more than 14,000 Native Americans in their collections.

The University of California, Berkeley, according to the news organization, has the largest collection of unrepatriated remains in the country — at least 9,000 that it has not made available for return to tribes. The school has pledged to complete the task within 10 years.

In Philadelphia, the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology ranked 46th on ProPublica’s list, with the remains of at least 400 Native Americans not available for repatriation.

Also appearing on the list are Temple University’s department of anthropology (116 remains), the Mütter Museum (54 remains), and the Wagner Free Institute of Science (26 remains).

Penn said on Thursday that it has been working with Native American communities since 1990 on repatriation, having mailed more than 3,000 letters to 400 tribes. So far, it has transferred 270 sets of human remains, in addition to hundreds of funerary objects.

» READ MORE: The ProPublica/NBC article: America’s biggest museums fail to return Native American human remains

“There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to handling repatriation,” said Christopher Woods, Penn Museum’s director. ”This is incredibly sensitive, time-consuming work. Each case is unique and deserves its own consideration. It is essential to proceed with the utmost care and diligence, as we confront our own history of racism and colonialism. That work is ongoing.”

Kate Quinn, executive director of the Mütter Museum, said on Thursday that the museum is “fully committed” to repatriating all the remains in its collection, a process she said began with initial research more than 25 years ago.

“Upon my arrival last year, the museum committed to reengaging this process, and so we have conducted additional outreach to known tribes,” Quinn said Thursday. “To date, we have successfully repatriated two sets of remains, and we have received three additional requests as a result of our outreach.”

» READ MORE: Look up which museums and universities still have Native American remains

Susan Glassman, executive director of the Wagner Free Institute of Science, in North Philadelphia, said the museum has sent out letters to Native American tribes and organizations regarding what she described as a small amount of fragmented bones that had been donated to the museum.

Glassman said she supports repatriating the remains, but the museum has not received any responses from tribes.

“Some places have been able to trace [the remains] very easily,” she said. “In many cases, it’s much more complicated.”

A spokesperson for the Temple University Anthropology Laboratory and Museum said in a statement that it is “fully committed to repatriating all Native American ancestors housed by the university.” It had housed the remains of ancestors from five sites, and has repatriated remains from two sites over the last five years.

“We want to make clear that 100% of the ancestors at Temple University are available for repatriation, and we are actively working to accomplish this,” the statement said.

» READ MORE: Penn Museum has identified 20 skulls of Black Philadelphians from its collection of 1,300 remains

The State Museum of Pennsylvania, in Harrisburg, has the 24th-largest collection of unrepatriated Native American remains in the country, with at least 900. Officials there did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

The National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest national organization of American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments, has called on the federal government to actively comply with NAGPRA and reunite tribal peoples with all known remains, cultural items, and funerary objects.

Christopher D.E. Willoughby, a history professor and author of Masters of Health: Racial Science and Slavery in U.S. Medical Schools, said museums need to continue with their work of returning remains to tribes, even if it is costly and time-consuming.

“It really is up until very recently that these remains were treated with even close to the dignity that they deserve,” Willoughby said. “In my opinion, they shouldn’t be in those museums, but it is hard to undo 150 years or so of haphazard collecting. These are really messy histories to untangle, but they need to be.”

For generations in the United States, the cruel treatment of Native American dead has been not merely tolerated but endorsed, their bodies and possessions taken, displayed, and dissected.

In 1862 the mass hanging of 38 Dakota men in Minnesota saw doctors dig under cover of night to steal the bodies from shallow riverside graves. Among those taking remains for medical specimens was Dr. William Mayo, whose sons would found the Mayo Clinic.

The clinic apologized in 2018.

In 1868 the U.S. surgeon general ordered Army personnel to collect Native heads for study, resulting in the gathering of 4,000 crania from battlefields, burial grounds, and hospitals over the next few decades.

More than 230 Native skeletons excavated from Dickson Mounds in Illinois were put on display in the 1920s and kept on view, despite protests, until 1992.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln incinerated what it saw as useless Native American bones from its archaeological collection in the mid-1960s, acknowledging that destruction only in 1998.

Remy, the Native American activist, said in many Native cultures, human remains must be placed into the ground for the person to be able to continue the journey to the afterlife.

Tribes have worked to retrieve and rebury their ancestors, she noted, but it’s often difficult and complicated. A person’s remains could have been stolen in the West more than a century ago, shipped across the country to a big institution in the East, then kept in storage for decades.

That challenges any effort to identify the individuals or even their tribe, to determine which family or people should have the remains, Remy said.

“A lot of the tribes feel like, let’s just get them out and bury them,” she said. “Having them in the museums isn’t good. They have them in there and they’re holding them hostage.”

» READ MORE: As ‘land acknowledgments’ proliferate, Indigenous peoples want actions, not words

Pennsylvania has become a place where Native American families seek the return of lost children, about 170 of whom are buried on the grounds of the former Carlisle Indian Industrial School, now the campus of the Army War College in Cumberland County.

That’s where former cavalry officer Richard Henry Pratt opened the nation’s first federally run, off-reservation boarding school at an old Army barracks in 1879. For 40 years his school worked to “civilize” American Indian children by erasing their names, languages, religions, customs, and family bonds, forcing them to speak English and teaching them rudimentary job skills.

Beatings were common punishment, and epidemics killed scores of boys and girls.

In recent years tribes have worked with the Army to return the children’s remains to their tribes and ancestral homelands for reburial. Those disinterments have bolstered allegations that the original burials were sloppy, with records poorly kept.

Native leaders have asked: How could schools lose track of children?

A 2022 study by the federal Interior Department identified more than 500 deaths at 19 schools, though that figure is doubtless a vast undercount. More than 10,000 children passed through Carlisle before it closed in 1918.

A smaller but unknown number of Carlisle students are buried in communities across central and eastern Pennsylvania. They were interred where they died, after Carlisle school leaders placed them into domestic and farm service for white families under the school’s “outing” program.

Staff writer Layla A. Jones contributed to this article.