More than three decades ago, Congress passed a law calling for museums and other groups to return the human remains of Native Americans in their possession. For years, two major East Tennessee institutions reflected the failure of that law, according to a joint investigation published Wednesday by ProPublica and NBC News.
The investigation found that institutions were failing on a massive scale to return remains to tribes -- and that half of the still-unreturned remains are held by a small minority of these institutions.
This list is populated in part by prestigious universities like Berkeley and Harvard. But Tennessee was the only state for which multiple institutions -- the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and the Tennessee Valley Authority -- ranked among the top 10.
Both have, however, made recent progress, well after the law in question was passed.
After years in which it returned only a small fraction of the Native American remains in its possession, UT has, like many other institutions, lately returned remains at a far faster pace.
TVA cultural resources
In 2019, for example, it made nearly 2,000 Native American remains taken from what is now South Dakota available to tribal descendants, according to data maintained by the National Park Service.
Still, these and other remains the university has made available to tribes account for just 34% of the 6,000-plus Native American human remains the university reported to be in its possession, according to the database.
The university is committed to fulfilling its obligations under the law, spokeswoman Kerry Gardner said by email Thursday, adding that it cannot file a notice with the government listing a set of remains as available to be returned until a tribe files claims for them.
Gardner said the school is working on the claims of several tribes.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, for its part, once reported having the remains of more than 12,800 Native Americans -- generally found in modern day Alabama and Tennessee -- in its possession.
This remained the case until recently, when TVA, like UT, made a significant portion of these available for return: 72% in its case.
The utility said it will soon relinquish these possessions entirely. Agency spokesman Scott Fiedler said by email Thursday that TVA recently determined that all Native American remains still in its possession should be made available -- and that they will be, whenever the Federal Register publishes TVA's public notice of this.
RESEARCH AND INFRASTRUCTURE
UT's and TVA's holdings of unrepatriated Native American remains are uncommonly large. But they are just two among about 600 institutions that have reported possessing what still amount to well over 100,000 unreturned Native American human remains.
In some cases, the excavated remains and other artifacts arrived via a kind of sanctioned looting by researchers probing old burial sites. For example, around the 1900s, archaeologists excavated burial mounds on a widespread basis in the Southeast. As the ProPublica/NBC News investigation noted, several of the institutions with the most unrepatriated Native American remains in their possession -- the Universities of Alabama and Kentucky also made the top 10 list -- are based in the region.
Similar research took place in other parts of the nation as well.
"We never ceded or relinquished our dead," one Arizona State University professor, a member of the Pawnee Nation, told ProPublica/NBC News reporters. "They were stolen."
Other Native American remains, such as those generally in the possession of TVA, were dug up amid massive infrastructure projects.
"When we constructed reservoirs in the '30s and '40s, a tremendous amount of human remains and funerary objects were removed," TVA has quoted its archaeologist and tribal liaison, Marianne Shuler, as saying on its website.
More than 20 federally recognized Indian tribes attach religious and cultural significance to land TVA manages, Fiedler said.
As a result of the 19th century Indian Removal Act, many -- though not all -- of these tribes are now based far away. Efforts to reach repatriation specialists at the Cherokee Nation, the Chickasaw Nation, the Muscogee Nation and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians by press time were unsuccessful.
Tribal activism paved the way for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act passed by Congress in 1990. The law sought to make universities, museums and other institutions inventory their artifacts and human remains and consult with Native American groups.
The basic premise was that institutions had to publicly report their holdings and coordinate with tribes to determine to whom the remains should be returned. If a connection was established between the remains and the tribe, the institution would publish a notice on the Federal Register, making the claims available to be repatriated.
Ultimately, few of the institutions with Native American remains in their possession relinquished their holdings in the years following the law's passage.
Some people resisted the law, sometimes arguing that the remains should stay in museums and universities or that specific modern tribes lack proof that they are the rightful stewards. UT was among those that avoided the law in the 1990s by categorizing everything in its collection as "culturally unidentifiable," according to the ProPublica/NBC News investigation.
Asked about this, Gardner, the university spokeswoman, focused on the more recent past, in which the school hired anthropologist Ellen Lofaro in part to spearhead its efforts, and the university's repatriations increased from 4% to 34% of its holdings.
"Over the last six years, the university has continued to build a program that underscores our commitment," Gardner said. "We are actively building relationships with and consulting with tribal communities. This work is important, and we are dedicated to continuing to make progress."
The Tennessee Valley Authority, for its part, began actively consulting with tribes in the 2000s, Fiedler said. He said tribes prioritized the repatriation of ancestral remains -- and that the TVA hired its first Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation specialist in 2009 to focus on the matter.
Since then, the federally-owned utility has made remains available to 11 tribes.
There are thousands of remains left to be passed along. But everything the utility has made available thus far, tribes have taken, Fiedler said.