America’s institutions maintain control of more than a hundred thousand remains of Native Americans as well as sacred items. A federal law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, was meant to help return them, but decades after its 1990 passage, many tribes are still waiting.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law Friday sweeping reforms that for the first time will give tribal nations — not state agencies, universities or museums — final say over how and when the remains of their ancestors and sacred items are returned to them.
“With the Governor signing these bills into law, Illinois is proving that a government is capable of reflecting on its past injustices and planning for a future that respects and celebrates our interconnectedness,” Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation Chairperson Joseph “Zeke” Rupnick said.
The newly signed Human Remains Protection Act was shaped by tribal nations over more than two years of consultations with the Illinois State Museum and the state Department of Natural Resources. The legislation unanimously passed the state House and Senate this spring and follows publication of ProPublica’s “The Repatriation Project,” an ongoing investigation into the delayed return of Native American ancestral remains by universities, museums and government agencies.
“Here in Illinois we believe in justice, and we won’t hide from the truth,” Pritzker said. “It’s up to us to right the wrongs of the past and to chart a new course.”
The law makes it the state’s responsibility to help return ancestral remains, funerary objects and other important cultural items to tribal nations, and it compels the state to follow the lead of tribal nations throughout the repatriation process. It also establishes a state Repatriation and Reinterment Fund to help with the costs of reburial, tribal consultation and the repair of any damage to burial sites, remains or sacred items.
Existing law to protect unmarked cemeteries in Illinois failed to create a pathway for tribal nations to rebury ancestral remains that had been disinterred. That law, passed in 1989, deemed most Native American remains to be property of the state.
The new law increases criminal penalties for the looting and desecration of gravesites, while adding a ban on profiteering from human remains and funerary objects through their sale, purchase or exhibition. Moreover, it mandates tribal nations be consulted as soon as possible when Indigenous gravesites are unintentionally disturbed or unearthed — such as during construction projects.
The measure follows decades of Indigenous activism, new leadership within the Illinois State Museum and IDNR, and ProPublica reporting that revealed widespread delays in institutions’ compliance with a 1990 federal repatriation law. ProPublica found that more than 30 years after passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, museums and other institutions nationwide still hold more than 100,000 Native American human remains.
The failure to repatriate expeditiously, as required by NAGPRA, is rife in Illinois, where more than 15,461 Native Americans have been excavated — more than from any other state, the ProPublica investigation found. The vast majority of those ancestors are still held by Illinois institutions. Previous policies at the Illinois State Museum, which holds the remains of at least 7,000 ancestors, favored the scientific study of remains over their return to tribes for reburial.
Sunshine Thomas-Bear, the cultural preservation director for the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, said, “It has been a rough road in trying to get the protection and rights that non-Natives have in protecting our ancestral burial sites and homelands.” She added that many Illinois gravesites have been desecrated and destroyed.
“This bill cannot remedy the damage that has been caused thus far, but perhaps it will protect the sites that remain in our homelands,” Thomas-Bear said, though she emphasized that the law is “a step in the right direction” for rebuilding relationships.
Significantly, the law empowers IDNR to set aside and maintain land solely for the reburial of repatriated Native American ancestors and their belongings. Tribal nations have pointed to the lack of protected places for reburial in Illinois as among the highest barriers to repatriation.
For example, in 1999 the Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa, the Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska and the Sac and Fox Nation, Oklahoma, repatriated the remains of 34 of their ancestors held by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, records show. The tribes wanted to rebury their ancestors at or near the site where they were originally interred: a former Sauk and Meskwaki village in Rock Island County along the Mississippi River. But the state wouldn’t allow the tribes to use the land, said Johnathan Buffalo, the tribal historic preservation director of the Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa. They had to rebury the ancestors in Iowa — west of the Mississippi River, the same borderline used by the U.S. government when it expelled all Native American tribes from the state during the 1830s.
“That old wound opened when Illinois did that to us,” Buffalo said.
More than 30 tribal nations are recognized by the state museum as having cultural and historic ties to Illinois. The consultations, which are ongoing, began with discussing the repatriation of more than 230 ancestors unearthed from what today is known as Dickson Mounds.
“The need to rebury and to think about a different way of being in relationship with land from the state side was reiterated to us from just about every tribal nation,” said Heather Miller, the director of tribal relations and historic preservation for the Illinois State Museum. Miller is also an enrolled citizen of the Wyandotte Nation.
The new law is part of a broader effort to recenter Native voices in Illinois and within state institutions, a commitment brought to the Illinois State Museum in part by its former director, Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, before her death this year. It was signed in tandem with two other laws; one requires the history of Native Americans in the Midwest be taught in Illinois public schools and another that bans school boards from prohibiting students from wearing cultural or tribal clothing and regalia in schools and at graduation ceremonies.
Interim Director Jennifer Edginton said the museum and IDNR, which oversees the institution, have “been looking very inward” to address the previous absence of Indigenous worldviews in their programs, collections and exhibits.
“We don’t want to continue that erasure, or stereotypes, or things that the museum field in general, unfortunately, has done since the inception of museums,” Edginton said.
The Legacy of Forced Removal
Today, no federally recognized tribes reside in Illinois, though Chicago is home to one of the largest urban communities of Indigenous people in the country. The absence of an organized political presence and tribal government has in part led to the state having among the worst repatriation track records in the nation.
“Forced removal affects everything,” said Miller, referring to the expulsion of Native American tribes from Illinois throughout the 1800s. “There was the physical removal, but that also removed [tribal nations] from being able to have a say in law, to have a say in voting, and from participating in all the ways the state operates and functions.”
That legacy has also contributed to Illinois museums designating many of the ancestral remains in their collections as “culturally unidentifiable” under the federal repatriation law. That designation has been misused by some institutions to avoid repatriating remains under NAGPRA, giving museums outsize power in consultations with tribal nations.
With passage of the new Illinois law, that balance of power will for the first time tip toward tribal nations whose ancestral lands became the state of Illinois.
“We have the ability to now bring those communities that were forcibly removed in violent ways back here,” Miller said. “Rather than being a ‘removal state,’ Illinois could be known as a ‘new relations’ state instead.”
The Future of Funerary Items
Another significant aspect of the new law is that it prohibits institutions from charging admission to view human remains that are Native American and any items that were originally buried with those individuals. Although the public display of Native American ancestral remains by museums fell out of practice after the passage of NAGPRA in the early 1990s, the public display of their funerary items has not.
After Dickson Mounds Museum in the early 1990s closed a burial exhibit that displayed the remains of more than 230 Native Americans, the institution still maintained a permanent exhibit that featured items taken from Indigenous gravesites across the state. As ProPublica reported this year, in September 2021, curators dismantled much of the exhibit at the request of tribal partners, who wished to see the items reunited with the ancestors they were buried with before their repatriation. Those funerary items made up about 40% of the exhibit.
State museum officials told ProPublica they’re not sure how many museums in Illinois still display funerary items. The law applies to every museum, university and historical society in the state — far more than the 15 institutions in Illinois that have reported their Native American holdings under the NAGPRA.
When asked about what he would say to museums that may push back against the law, Illinois State Rep. Mark L. Walker said: “Too bad.”
Walker, a Democrat who represents part of Chicago’s northwest suburbs, sponsored the legislation. He said he’s already received interest from other states looking to adopt similar laws.
“I think we can be a model for other states,” Walker said. “Whether we can change [Illinois’] image to such an extent that these communities actually trust us? I don’t know. That may take 30 years.”