a black and white photo of a grassy field with trees a black and white photo of a limestone building with a tall turret a black and white photo of four men wearing suits sitting in a room filled with books with maps on the wall

Thousands of Native American remains, a legacy of offensive research and the effort to move forward

Over decades, IU amassed thousands of human remains and cultural items used for research Native Americans consider offensive. A recent Senate probe asks why.

TOP PHOTOS Left:Top: The Angel Mounds burial site in Vanderburgh County is seen in 1948. Middle: The Student Building is seen in 1939. Right:Bottom The founding members of the IU Department of Anthropology pose in 1947, the first year of the department. Courtesy of IU Archives

In 2001, the IU anthropology department hired its first full-time Native American professor, Wesley Thomas. His office was in the Student Building, where, unknown to him at the time, the remains of thousands of Indigenous people were stored in the basement.

Starting in the early 20th century, anthropologists associated with IU excavated and acquired more than 5,800 human remains, removed from their resting place in the name of science. Mostly white faculty and students used them for research that the majority of Native Americans consider offensive and inhumane, including racial classification studies.

When he realized the human remains were in the Student Building a few years later, Wesley said he asked the anthropology department chair to move his office to a different building.

“I was extremely disturbed by it. Something that people outside of a Native community do not understand is that we're aware of our ancestors and their presence,” Wesley said. “I couldn't concentrate or focus, and I had to move out.”

Wesley was quickly given a new office, but he said he still didn’t feel comfortable teaching at IU. According to interviews with Wesley and other faculty, the majority of the anthropology department through the early 2000s adhered to “old school” teachings which cast Native American people as objects of scientific study rather than people with human rights.


Law passed in 1990 which mandates federal agencies and museums that receive federal funds to repatriate or transfer ownership of human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony to lineal descendants, federally recognized tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations.

SOURCE: Bureau of Land Management

In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act mandated that federally funded institutions, including IU, start working to return collections of Native American human remains and cultural items to Tribes through a process called repatriation. But none of the human remains at IU were repatriated until 24 years after the law passed, eight years after Wesley left the university.

Slow responses to NAGPRA were not unusual, especially right after its passage, when there was little guidance on best practices for both institutions and Tribal nations. Fifteen years after the legislation passed, only 40.5% of institutions subject to NAGPRA had reported completing at least one repatriation, according to public data.


Return of possession or control of Native American cultural items to lineal descendants, culturally affiliated Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations. Often involves reburial.


But in interviews with the Indiana Daily Student, current and former faculty alleged that IU avoided good-faith compliance with NAGPRA for years. Administrators pushed the sensitive, difficult and extensive repatriation process onto anthropology faculty who had full-time research and teaching responsibilities and were not prepared to complete NAGPRA work.

In inventories of human remains and cultural items that IU was legally required to report by 1995, nearly all were classified as “culturally unidentifiable,” taking advantage of a loophole that allowed institutions to avoid repatriation and continue research. Despite faculty advocacy for repatriation as early as the late ‘90s, IU didn’t fund NAGPRA compliance until 2013 — three years after the law was updated to close the loophole.


In that year, IU hired Jayne-Leigh Thomas — not related to Wesley Thomas — who still serves as the director of the IU NAGPRA Office. In the decade since, the NAGPRA Office has greatly improved the university’s reputation for compliance, according to interviews with faculty and a Tribal representative. Jayne-Leigh has led the department as it added five other full-time employees, formed meaningful relationships with Tribal representatives, completed multiple large repatriations and helped at least five other universities build up similar programs.

IU’s NAGPRA response has garnered scrutiny recently after a January ProPublica investigation of repatriation efforts across the country, which found that IU reported the fifth-largest collection of unrepatriated Indigenous human remains in the country. On April 21, a Senate probe scrutinized compliance processes at the five institutions with the largest collections, including IU, after “troubling testimony detailing ongoing issues related to the timely completion of NAGPRA repatriations.”

Jayne-Leigh, IU faculty and a Tribal representative have expressed concerns about this scrutiny into NAGPRA work, fearful that adding pressure on institutions and Tribes without providing them with more resources would rush repatriation and make it harder to do it properly.

“Trying to expedite this process could turn very easily into kind of a garage sale mentality, of saying, ‘Well, we just have to get them out of our museum, we'll just give them to the first Tribe that shows interest,’ and that's not good,” said Carrie V. Wilson, NAGPRA director at the Quapaw Nation. “That's not going to help anybody. I don't think that was the intent of NAGPRA.”

The story of NAGPRA at IU is one of great complexity. Faced with the problematic legacy of how IU acquired its vast collection of human remains to begin with, IU employees and Tribal members agree the process of NAGPRA today can never fully right the wrongs of the past. But when done right, it can help everyone involved move forward.

a black and white photo of a limestone building with a tall turret

Courtesy of IU Archives

A photo of the Student Building taken in 1939. IU stored most of its collection of Native American remains in the basement of the building until recently.

Decades of avoiding repatriation

Wesley Thomas said when he was an assistant professor at IU from 2001 to 2006, NAGPRA was already a core concept taught in anthropology classes. But he described it as a “hush” topic among faculty, along with other Indigenous issues.

Wesley is a member of the Navajo Nation, and he was the first full-time Native American professor in the Department of Anthropology and the only one during his time at IU, when he also worked with Native student activists and Native faculty to found the IU First Nations Educational & Cultural Center. During those years, he recalled other faculty members often changing the subject away from Indigenous topics as soon as he walked in the room.

“If I start(ed) asking questions, that would upset the whole department and the university,” Wesley said.


He said the unwelcoming culture of the department contributed to his decision to leave IU and return to the Navajo Nation in 2006, where he taught for years at Navajo Technical University and is now a professor emeritus.

“I felt extremely awkward, uncomfortable, unpleasant — that I shouldn't be there,” Wesley said.

Since Wesley left, the department has hired at least three more Native American faculty members, including two who still work at IU, according to professor emerita April Sievert.

Current anthropology chair Andrea Wiley said the department has improved its inclusion of Indigenous perspectives in the years since Wesley worked there.

“Over the course of my chairship we have undertaken a hard honest assessment of our troubled legacy as a department particularly with regard to the collection of ancestral human remains,” Wiley said. “We have held listening sessions and educational sessions to inform us all (students, faculty, staff) about our department’s history in this regard. We have worked very closely with the NAGPRA office to ensure that all ancestral Native American human remains are repatriated and we continue to hold educational sessions so that departmental members are aware of this process and what it entails.”

While most anthropology professors in the early 2000s were unaware of or uninterested in NAGPRA, according to multiple faculty interviews, a small group pushed for better compliance efforts starting in the late ‘90s.

In 2000, Richard Wilk became the department chair of the anthropology department. Wilk said he was immediately concerned about IU’s potential noncompliance with NAGPRA.

In 2000, Richard Wilk became the department chair of the anthropology department. Wilk said he was immediately concerned about IU’s potential noncompliance with NAGPRA.


An item-by-item description of all human remains and associated funerary objects held by a federally funded institution which had to be submitted to the federal government by 1995.


NAGPRA established a 1995 deadline for institutions to compile an inventory of all the human remains and cultural items in their possession. The goal was to determine how many each institution had amassed and understand which materials were associated with which Tribal nations — an important step to enable repatriation work.

Administrators saddled Della Collins Cook, who declined to comment for this story and still teaches in the anthropology department, with the responsibility of cataloging more than 4,000 human remains and more than 5,500 associated funerary objects, on top of her regular teaching and research, according to Wilk and other faculty. Hired as an associate professor and the curator of the collection, she had no past experience with repatriation work, and IU provided no NAGPRA training or overtime pay to help her complete the inventory.

Anne Pyburn, provost professor of anthropology, who has taught at IU-Bloomington since the ‘90s, said asking a professor to add NAGPRA work to their job was unreasonable, and that Cook was not equipped with adequate resources.

Anne Pyburn, IU Provost professor of Anthropology, who has worked at IU-Bloomington since the ‘90s, said asking a professor to add NAGPRA work to their job was unreasonable, and that Cook was not equipped with adequate resources.

“That's a different skill set,” Pyburn said. “It's not just, ‘Here's another full time job,’ it's ‘Here's another full time job that you don't know how to do.’”

Associated funerary objects

Objects that, as part of the death rite or ceremony of a culture, are reasonably believed to have been placed with individual human remains either at the time of death or later, and both the human remains and associated funerary objects are presently in the possession or control of a federally funded institution.


In addition to the anthropology inventory, about 800 human remains and 2,000 funerary objects were cataloged in the Glenn Black Lab’s inventory, which then-curator Noel Justice completed, according to Sievert.

Based on the original law, institutions — not Tribes — had final say on whether human remains were associated, or “culturally affiliated,” with Tribal nations. Because of this, some institutions marked remains as “culturally unidentifiable” even if there was evidence otherwise, essentially absolving them of legal responsibility to halt research and begin repatriation work.

In IU’s original inventories, from both the Department of Anthropology and the Glenn Black Laboratory of Archaeology, nearly all of the combined 5,800 reported human remains were marked culturally unidentifiable. Students and faculty, including Cook, continued to research the ancestral remains for decades after the inventory was submitted, according to faculty interviews. Research only fully stopped within the last few years, said NAGPRA Director Jayne-Leigh Thomas. She said IU established a NAGPRA research review board in 2021 to ensure no future research would happen without Tribal involvement.

Cultural affiliation

Shared identity between a present-day Tribal nation with a past group. There are many ways to establish cultural affiliation.


“You could basically get away with saying that everything's unaffiliated and we don't have to do anything about it, especially when you think about how much it would cost and the time and the effort required,” Wilk said.

Wilk, who is now a professor emeritus, said he raised concerns about IU’s potential noncompliance within IU and with the National NAGPRA office, but he was dismissed at every turn.

He asked his former boss, Kumble Subbaswamy, then-dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, to provide resources for NAGPRA compliance work, but Subbaswamy declined, citing financial constraints. Subbaswamy, now the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, did not respond to emails from the IDS asking about this exchange.

Wilk wrote letters to and called the National NAGPRA office, hoping an official notice of noncompliance would push IU administrators to act, but he said the office was too busy to investigate IU’s inventories.

“I think rather than active opposition, what we got was lack of movement,” Wilk said. “There's a difference between actively opposing something and just not dealing with it. And I think that's what we were doing for a long time, was just not dealing with it.”

This avoidance wasn’t surprising to Wilk, he said. Most of the faculty in the early 2000s had been educated during a time when most anthropologists considered Native American remains valuable objects of scientific study, not a human rights issue, Wilk said.


“Some of the older archeologists and the bio-anthropologists felt that NAGPRA was not a good thing for their science,” Wilk said. “They didn't like having the bones taken away by Tribes who just wanted to bury what they considered to be extremely valuable data that they had been wanting to study, and keep studying.”

Pyburn said another reason anthropologists across the country didn’t respond well to NAGPRA was because they defined respect differently than the Native Americans whose ancestral remains they studied.

She said many anthropologists were surprised by NAGPRA, because they thought they were being respectful by devoting their lives to understanding Native American history, but didn’t take into account how what they deemed to be respectful was extremely harmful in the eyes of the people they studied.

Pyburn said the field has begun to shift only recently to be more inclusive of Indigenous perspectives.

“I've spent my entire career trying to make this happen and trying to change the discipline so that it becomes a different kind of endeavor,” Pyburn said. “The point of what I do and the point of what I encourage my students to do is to address the injustices that are significantly a result of colonialism.”

a black and white image of about a dozen men standing in several squared off areas of dirt with very short walls and digging in the ground

Courtesy of the Glenn Black A. Laboratory of Archaeology

Laborers hired through the Works Progress Administration excavate Angel Mounds in Vanderburgh County. Between 1939 and 1942, more than 200 men from the WPA excavated more than 2.3 million artifacts from the site.

Why does IU have so many human remains?

IU originally reported more than 5,800 Native American human remains held by both the Department of Anthropology and the Glenn Black Lab, making its combined collection one of the largest subject to NAGPRA in the country.

Over decades, philanthropist Eli Lilly Jr., grandson of the founder of Eli Lilly and Company, coordinated and funded most of the projects that ultimately brought thousands of Native American human remains and cultural items to IU.

Starting in the 1930s, Lilly became fascinated with archaeology, and made use of his extensive financial resources to sponsor archaeologists and graduate students to study Indiana’s past, according to a biography of Lilly published in 2006. He sponsored Glenn A. Black, who became the first full-time archaeologist in Indiana and one of Lilly’s closest friends, covering his field expenses and arranging for him to study at the Ohio State Museum.

a black and white image of two men standing together. the man on the left is wearing baggy slacks and a patterned suit jacket. he has white hair and glasses. the man on the right is wearing a suit with a vest and a fedora. both men are looking at the camera and almost smiling

Courtesy of the Glenn Black A. Laboratory of Archaeology

Glenn Black (left) and Eli Lilly stand together around 1959 at Angel Mounds, where Black lived for decades as he continued archaeological work there, funded mostly by Lilly. The pair exchanged frequent letters on the topic of archaeology, according to Lilly’s biography.

In the mid-1930s, Lilly provided fellowships to linguistic anthropologist Charles F. Voegelin, archaeologist James B. Griffin and physical anthropologist Georg K. Neumann, who specialized in the study of skeletal remains.

Neumann focused on studying skulls, and observed at least 10,000 of them during his career. Sometimes he would visit museums to examine their materials, but he would also receive donated skeletal remains that would remain at IU permanently.


The study of skull shape and size as the determinant of intelligence and character. Popular through the 20th century, but has since been scientifically disproved and is considered pseudoscience.

SOURCE: Encyclopedia Britannica

Neumann was one of the leading physical anthropologists studying Native American remains at the time, and he sought to classify skeletal remains from different Tribal groups into racial categories, according to an analysis of his work by IU professor Della Collins Cook, who was hired as his replacement in the 1970s and was also the professor who completed the NAGPRA inventory. His research, which included phrenology, is now categorized as racial classification, a pseudoscientific theory that was used to try to find genetic differences between human races, often with the goal of scientifically reinforcing racial hierarchies.

a black and white photo of a middle-aged man in a three-piece suit and tie holding a small piece of bone. he's standing next to a table where a small model of a structure with a thatched roof sits. in the background, several skeletons can be seen hanging on a wall of an office

Courtesy of IU Archives

Georg Neumann poses with Native American artifacts in February 1950. Neumann, a physical anthropologist, specialized in the study of human skulls.

Neumann, Black, Voegelin, Griffin and a few others became known as the “Indiana group,” according to Lilly’s biography. Lilly planned to combine research from the work of his Indiana group into a definitive manuscript, which he hoped would prove the validity of the Walam Olum, a set of birch bark scrolls supposedly found and transcribed from the Lenape, or Delaware, language into English in 1833, which most historians now agree was probably forged.

Walam Olum

A set of birch-bark scrolls supposedly found by scientist Constantine Rafinesque in 1833, which most historians now agree was a hoax. Rafinesque published a translation of the pictograms that he supposedly found, which detailed a lengthy origin story of the Lenape, or Delaware, Tribe.

SOURCE: American Literary History

After it first surfaced in 1833, the Walam Olum was repeatedly used by researchers to try to justify personal beliefs or political agendas with Native history.

Constantine Rafinesque, the scientist who claimed to have found the original copy of the Walam Olum in 1833, was sympathetic to Native Americans in the wake of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, according to historian Andrew Newman. In that year, at least 18 Tribes were forced to relocate west of the Mississippi River, including most of the Tribal Nations in Indiana. Given this historical context, Rafinesque likely had a political motivation to publish the Walam Olum because it claimed the Lenape people migrated from the Old World, and he hoped to generate sympathy for Native American people by linking their genetic and cultural heritage to Europeans.

Regardless of Rafinesque’s motivations, his approach delegitimized Indigenous perspectives, discounting Lenape oral history and implying that Native Americans must fit into traditional Western perceptions of advanced civilizations to deserve respect and dignity, according to Newman’s research and Kelsey Grimm, librarian and archivist at the IU Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.


On the other hand, the Walam Olum has also been used to prop up a myth from the early 20th century that claimed the existence of a fabled “race” of “Moundbuilders,” said Grimm. The myth claims that the ancient people who built large burial mounds like the ones at the Angel Mounds site in Vanderburgh County had to have been more advanced, and more directly related to Europeans, than the Native Tribes that still live in America.

“That is false,” Grimm said. “That's a fallacy. That was a racist myth.”

As early as 1932, Lilly was discouraged by contemporaries from pursuing Walam Olum research. In one letter quoted in Lilly’s biography, anthropologist Carl Guthe wrote that “the Walam Olum thesis is a rather frail reed on which to lean in archaeological work.” But Lilly and his Indiana group continued to work on the thesis for 20 years, working on the project while also pursuing other research.

a black and white photo of four men wearing suits sitting in a room filled with books with maps on the wall

Courtesy of IU Archives

Glenn Black (right), Georg Neumann (second from right) and Charles F. Voegelin (third from right) pose for a photo with William J. Wallace in 1947, the year IU founded its Department of Anthropology. Black, Neumann and Voegelin were the three core members of IU’s anthropology faculty, and were also all part of Eli Lilly’s “Indiana group,” a group of anthropologists he sponsored to research the prehistory of Indiana.

In 1938, Lilly provided more than $1.4 million in today’s dollars to help the Indiana Historical Society purchase the Angel Mounds site in Vanderburgh County, and Black began a decades-long excavation which would involve laborers hired through the Works Progress Administration and students from IU’s summer field school. Materials from Angel Mounds form the largest portion of IU’s archaeological collection today, comprising more than 2.5 million pot sherds, ceramics, stones, animal bones and shells, along with hundreds of human remains.

The rest of the Indiana group also continued research which brought Native American remains from more than a dozen U.S. states to IU through donations from other museums, universities or private donors, one of the main ways anthropologists acquired the remains of people for research through the 20th century.

IU has reported Native American remains originating from at least 15 states

Through the 20th century, anthropologists, amateur archaeologists and collectors would donate Native American remains to faculty members at universities for study. This resulted in IU having human remains that originate thousands of miles away from Bloomington.

Note: Data only includes human remains that IU has not yet repatriated. County totals are subsets of state totals. Not all data points have county information, so state totals might be higher than the total of all counties shown in that state. At least 66 individuals reported by IU had no location data, and aren't shown in this map.

Source: NAGPRA Inventories

Partnering with Indiana University was a logical next step for Lilly, who needed an institution to house artifacts and continue to produce research as part of his long-term goal of ensuring a future for anthropology in Indiana. By mid-1947, Lilly had worked with then-IU President Herman B Wells to establish the Department of Archaeology, instating Black, Voegelin and Neumann as core faculty.

A few years later, Lilly finally achieved his goal of publishing a manuscript, titled “Walam Olum or Red Score: The Migration Legend of the Lenni Lenape or Delaware Indians.” The book received mixed reviews, as anthropologists recognized the impressive scope of the project but remained skeptical of the Walam Olum as a primary document.

The spine of an old book. It is black with gold lettering that reads, walam olum, the migration legend of the lenni lenape or delaware indians, followed by about a dozen golden pictograph drawings, and then the words indiana historical society
A yellowish page in a book which reads, 'Walam olum or red score, the migration legend of the lenni lenape or delaware indians. a new translation interpreted by linguistic, historical, archaeological, ethnological, and physical anthropological studies, indianapolis historical society, 1954'

Courtesy of the Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology

The spine and first page of “Walam Olum or Red Score: The Migration Legend of the Lenni Lenape or Delaware Indians," the final product of Eli Lilly's Walam Olum research project, are shown.

When Black died suddenly in 1964, Lilly funded the Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology at IU, both to honor his friend and to store and facilitate the research of the millions of artifacts and hundreds of human remains that could no longer stay at Angel Mounds since Black would no longer be working there.

The methods used to acquire Indigenous ancestral remains for study and the nature of that resulting research has long been offensive to most Native Americans.

Carrie V. Wilson, NAGPRA director at the Quapaw Nation, said she can’t understand why past scientists felt the need to excavate human remains and cultural items.

Carrie V. Wilson, NAGPRA Director at the Quapaw Nation, said she can’t understand why past scientists felt the need to excavate human remains and cultural items.

“As far as trying to understand the logic behind it and all that kind of stuff, I can't even begin to go there,” she said. “There's lots of human remains out there, and they still have to be reburied.”

Starting the NAGPRA office

In the early 1990s, Wilson received a letter from the Glenn Black Lab notifying her that IU had human remains and cultural items likely affiliated with the Quapaw. Those remains wouldn’t be repatriated until decades later.

Wilson was and still is the only dedicated NAGPRA worker at the Quapaw Nation. She said she tried to get in touch with the Glenn Black Lab a couple times over the years but personnel kept changing.

Then in 2013, IU began a series of changes that would finally enable good-faith repatriation work to begin. April Sievert became the director of the Glenn Black Lab, and began to address NAGPRA compliance. A few months later, IU hired Jayne-Leigh Thomas as the first director of its new NAGPRA Office.

Then in 2013, IU began a series of changes that would finally enable good-faith repatriation work to begin. April Sievert became the director of the Glenn Black Lab, and began to address NAGPRA compliance. A few months later, IU hired Jayne-Leigh Thomas as the first director of its new NAGPRA Office.

When she first started, Jayne-Leigh said she tried to start consultations through letters in the mail, but she didn’t hear back from most Tribal representatives, who often deal with constant communication from many institutions. So in 2014, she and Sievert flew to Oklahoma and drove to multiple states to visit representatives from at least 13 other Tribal nations, including Wilson, in person.

“We talked to 14 tribes in five days, and that was the start,” Jayne-Leigh said. “That goes a long ways.”

The physical distance between IU and most of the Tribes involved in NAGPRA consultation is a result of violent forced migrations in the mid-1800s. This geography makes NAGPRA compliance in the Midwest more difficult, Jayne-Leigh said, as consultations typically require flights and it’s harder to find reburial land.


Communication between representatives of institutions and Tribes to discuss how to move forward with repatriation work. Can consist of phone calls, emails, in-person meetings or any other form of communication.


Soon after their first meeting, Wilson worked with Jayne-Leigh and Sievert to repatriate materials to the Quapaw Nation. As they continued working together, Wilson said she realized the Quapaw Nation was linked to the Angel Mounds burial site.

“I was convinced we were affiliated, and I worked with Dr. Jayne-Leigh and April Sievert on establishing cultural affiliation to Angel Mounds,” Wilson said. “So, it eventually went forward.”

As part of that process, Wilson and representatives from at least 14 other Tribal nations met in Bloomington to consult with Jayne-Leigh and Sievert and move forward with the repatriation of hundreds of Native American remains that had been taken from Angel Mounds. IU had received an $85,000 grant from the National NAGPRA office the previous year, which helped fund the consultation, including paying for the flights and hotels of Tribal representatives.

IU spent about $440,000 on its NAGPRA Office this year

Since it started in fall 2013, the office has gained six full-time staff members.

Source: IU Budget Office

Jayne-Leigh said consultation meetings involve her asking the Tribal representatives where they want to start.

“I had put a map of Indiana up on the board and I said, ‘Do you want me to start with Southern Indiana, Northern Indiana, along the Illinois-Ohio borders?’” Jayne-Leigh said. “And they said, ‘What's the largest collection you have?’ So that's what we did.”


In 2021, the day after the spring equinox, Wilson and other Tribal representatives returned to Indiana for the repatriation ceremony of the human remains from Angel Mounds, when more than 700 individuals were reburied.

“Each one is different, and the reburial in that one was very spiritual and it was very emotional,” Wilson said. “It really turned out very, very nice, and it was very appropriate for spring and new birth, and new ideas and new friends, and actually just a new viewpoint to start all over again.”

Since IU founded its NAGPRA office, its staff have completed about a dozen separate repatriation projects, reburying more than 1,000 of more than 5,800 reported human remains, based on public data. The NAGPRA office also worked with administrators to move as much of the collection as possible out of the Glenn Black Lab and the Student Building into a new secure, climate-controlled facility that was built in 2018, according to Sievert.

Jayne-Leigh said while NAGPRA work takes time to do properly, she hopes IU’s entire collection will be repatriated well before she retires.

Richard Wilk, the former department chair who raised concerns about IU’s potential non-compliance with NAGPRA, said he was very happy when IU established a NAGPRA Office in 2013, and has been impressed with the progress in the decade since.

“It was much delayed. But when the university finally woke up, they really woke up,” Wilk said.

a black and white photo of a grassy field with trees

Courtesy of IU Archives

A photo of Angel Mounds archaeological site in 1948. In 2021, IU NAGPRA completed the repatriation of more than 700 human remains back to Angel Mounds after consulting with more than a dozen Tribes.

Recent scrutiny of NAGPRA at IU

Last week, a bipartisan group of 13 U.S. senators released a letter they sent to IU and the four other institutions with the largest publicly reported collections of Native American human remains, expressing concern about slow responses to NAGPRA and giving them 60 days to provide details about their compliance processes and send updated inventories.

The probe followed a ProPublica investigation into public repatriation data calling out IU as one of the institutions with the largest reported number of Indigenous human remains that haven’t yet been repatriated.

The National NAGPRA Office also recently proposed new regulations that aim to speed up the repatriation process, which have been criticized by some Tribal members.

Wilson, Jayne-Leigh, Pyburn and Sievert all expressed concerns about the recent scrutiny of NAGPRA work, which they said could put unhelpful pressure on both Tribes and institutions to rush the repatriation process.

Wilson said she fears the proposed NAGPRA regulations might add deadlines that could further strain Tribes and museums that already lack proper funding for NAGPRA work.

Jayne-Leigh expressed frustration about recent scrutiny, and said it perpetuates common misconceptions about NAGPRA, like the idea that collection sizes reflect on the quality of NAGPRA work today.

“Having large numbers in your dataset doesn't mean you're out of compliance, and it doesn't mean you're not doing good work,” Jayne-Leigh said. “You can have exceptionally small collections and be anti-NAGPRA and refuse to work with communities.”

Instead, she said the size of collections reflects on the practices of institutions decades and even centuries ago.

IU reported the fifth-largest collection of Native American remains in the country

The institutions that reported the five largest collections were the subject of an April 21 Senate probe that scrutinized their NAGPRA compliance efforts.

Source: NAGPRA Inventories

When asked about these criticisms, the reporting team behind the ProPublica repatriation investigation wrote in an email to the IDS,

“Before publication, ProPublica sought comment from each of the universities named in our reporting, including Indiana University. Director (Jayne-Leigh) Thomas did not respond to our requests. Our reporting team welcomes feedback on our coverage or corrections, which can be emailed to repatration@propublica.org. We are aware that the self-reported inventory records are incomplete and likely underestimates. We write about this in our stories and methodology section.”

Jayne-Leigh also said it would be more helpful if the senators worked with the National NAGPRA Office directly.

“To some extent, that's the whole point of National NAGPRA is to investigate NAGPRA noncompliance,” Jayne-Leigh said. “It would be great if the senators could work with National NAGPRA to either increase penalties or give more grants.”

She also echoed Wilson’s concerns about rushing NAGPRA work.

“If a university hurries up just because of pressure from senators, media outlets and other organizations, collections might be left behind, there could be funerary objects not accounted for,” Jayne-Leigh said. “My work with Tribal nations needs to be dictated by their timelines and concerns, not any pressure from the public or outside parties.”

Jayne-Leigh also noted that stories about repatriation work are often kept personal and private, because they involve personal grief, like all funerals. NAGPRA coordinators are also careful to avoid disclosing the location of reburial grounds in most cases to deter looters. For these reasons, she explained that IU’s NAGPRA department often doesn’t publicize its progress, and the public typically does not know about the complexity of ongoing projects within the department.

April Sievert, the former Glenn Black Lab director, said via email that after reading the Senate probe, she thinks the Senators don’t understand the scope of repatriation.

“Yes, institutions waited way too long. However, in the real world of NAGPRA, a big repatriation” can take years to do properly, Sievert wrote. “Demanding that all the institutions and the Tribes who’ve been waiting so long scramble to transfer materials in say three years will leave many Tribes bereft, especially if they don’t have the resources or staff to make claims or be considered as part of larger repatriations.”

Wilson said increased federal funding for the National NAGPRA Office and more flexible grant options would help facilitate efficient, quality NAGPRA work.

Right now, Wilson cannot request funding for her one-person department — she can only request one-off grants for specific projects. She said money to help Tribes create and maintain NAGPRA departments would go a lot further.

More sustained funding for National NAGPRA would help expedite often backlogged processes. For example, disputes between institutions and Tribes must be processed by National NAGPRA before any fines or other legal action can proceed, but the office is typically very backed up. The office hired its first investigator at the end of January to look into noncompliance at museums and universities, but Wilson said one investigator is far from sufficient to tackle this large undertaking.

National NAGPRA declined to be interviewed for this story, citing time constraints.

Pyburn said more money to help Tribes fund NAGPRA work is especially important.

“This is a problem that is squarely on the shoulders of the people who excavated the human remains,” Pyburn said. “We can't expect the people whose ancestors we're talking about to provide hundreds of hours of free labor to negotiate the process, to write the grants that are necessary to cover the costs of the transportation and the rehousing of human remains and the appropriate ceremonial practices, all of those things are time consuming and expensive.”

Despite her issues with the ProPublica story, Jayne-Leigh acknowledged the reporting has been beneficial in calling out noncompliant institutions.

“The silver lining is that for institutions that were not doing anything, hopefully it will get their administrators to realize that they need to be doing better, and they will start to fund offices,” she said.

Wilson said while different Tribes and other groups have their own opinions about the best way to approach NAGPRA work, they have a shared goal: repatriation.

“We all may do it in different ways, but we all have common goals, and that's to repatriate,” Wilson said. “Especially Tribes who have been removed from their homelands and been decimated by disease, it gives us an opportunity to rediscover our past. It actually can be a spiritual journey and enrich the Tribe in many different ways, if you do it right.”

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to add the involvement of Native students and faculty at IU in founding the First Nations Educational & Cultural Center.

About this story

The IDS spent more than three months researching NAGPRA at IU, conducting extensive interviews and reading historical documents. Reporting on the history of anthropology at IU refers to Chapter 6 of “Eli Lilly, a Life”, a 1989 biography written by James Madison; Chapter 2 of “Bioarchaeology: the contextual analysis of human remains” by Della Collins Cook; primary documents reviewed at the IU Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, including letters to and from Lilly, Black, Voegelin and Neumann; and interviews with IUMAA staff.

Social share image by Amanda King, Cailin O'Malley and Carson TerBush