America’s institutions hold human remains and sacred items taken from the graves of tens of thousands of Native Americans. 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.

American museums and universities repatriated more ancestral remains and sacred objects to tribal nations this year than at any point in the past three decades, transferring ownership of an estimated 18,800 Native American ancestors, institutions reported.

And more repatriations are forthcoming. Museums, universities and government agencies have filed 380 repatriation notices this year — more than the previous two years combined — under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, declaring that they plan to make human remains and burial items available to tribes.

“By every measurement, this has been a record-breaking year,” Melanie O’Brien, manager of the Interior Department’s National NAGPRA Program, said during a recent federal review committee hearing on repatriation. “I’m reminded every day that with each notice that gets published and every inventory that is updated, it means that another ancestor is closer to being respectfully returned.”

The increase follows a ProPublica investigation that revealed how institutions have for decades failed to fully comply with NAGPRA, in some cases exploiting a loophole that allowed them to keep the remains by denying their connections to present-day Indigenous communities. And some institutions, including Harvard University, pursued destructive scientific studies on those remains without the informed consent of descendants.

In response to our reporting — which included a dozen stories and an interactive database that allows the public to see the status of repatriation in their communities — there has been widespread acknowledgment of past failures. More than 70 news outlets cited ProPublica’s database to report the repatriation progress of institutions in their communities. And coming regulatory changes promise to improve the repatriation process, experts said.

At the start of 2023, museums had yet to repatriate more than 110,000 Native American remains, which equated to more than half of what they had reported holding in their collections, despite NAGPRA’s passage 33 years ago. As the year draws to a close, that figure has dropped to about 97,000. To date, about 180 museums that have reported holding ancestral remains have not begun repatriating at all.

“It’s just mind boggling why these entities would have vast large collections of human remains,” said Armand Minthorn, a former council member for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon who now serves on the National NAGPRA Review Committee, a federal advisory board. “The fight goes on, but we’re not going to give up.”

The work of pushing for accountability and repatriation has long been led by Indigenous people. Before the passage of NAGPRA in 1990, tribal citizens and leaders protested the outsized power that institutions had in determining cultural connections that could lead to repatriation. Grassroots efforts have also shaped newly revised NAGPRA regulations that will go into effect next year.

Typically, institutions and agencies file repatriation notices after extensive consultation with tribal representatives. Publication of such notices means legal control of the remains and objects can be transferred to tribal nations named in the document.

Credit: Ash Ngu/ProPublica

O’Brien said the notices are a barometer of how actively institutions are working to comply with the law. While it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact explanation for the increased repatriation activity, she said, reporting from ProPublica and scores of local news outlets that cited our repatriation database likely contributed to the uptick.

“The attention and awareness due to ProPublica’s reporting is a part of it,” O’Brien said in an interview. “In addition, the significant amount of local reporting that has followed ProPublica’s reporting has increased awareness of repatriation.”

ProPublica’s database incorporated information from Federal Register notices to make the National NAGPRA Program’s repatriation database searchable by tribe for the first time. For many years, the database could only be searched by institution. Identifying which notices tribes had been included in required sifting through the Federal Register.

Gordon Yellowman, a former NAGPRA coordinator for the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, said in an email to ProPublica that ready access to these reports had aided his tribe’s repatriation efforts.

Changes Among Institutions With the Most Unrepatriated Native American Remains

ProPublica reported this year that 10 entities — including top universities, a state-run museum and the U.S. Interior Department — hold about half of the remains that have not been repatriated under NAGPRA.

For years, the University of California, Berkeley, held the largest number of ancestral remains — a result of fostering aggressive excavations throughout the state that resulted in the school collecting the remains of at least 12,000 Native American ancestors from the late 1800s to the 1980s. Only about a fourth had been repatriated.

But in late October, the university’s standing changed as a federal notice showed UC Berkeley was preparing to repatriate some 4,400 ancestors and 25,000 items taken from burial sites in the Bay Area, the ancestral and present-day homelands of the Ohlone people.

Now, the Ohio History Connection is the institution that has the nation’s largest number of unrepatriated remains — at least 7,100 in total. The Illinois State Museum is close behind as it works to repatriate the remains of about 1,104 ancestors excavated from burial mounds in Fulton County, Illinois.

Lawmakers in Ohio and Illinois passed legislation this year with the aim of removing barriers to repatriation for the museums and tribes alike, while allowing land to be set aside to rebury the thousands of ancestors in each state.

Both museums have told ProPublica that they are committed to repatriating everything in their collections that was taken from Indigenous graves.

Harvard’s Peabody Museum, the institution with the third largest collection under NAGPRA, has made similar pledges as it has reckoned with its past collection practices.

“We are one of the worst offenders, and that’s why Harvard’s actions, and lack of action, have attracted attention and criticism, and why we will be watched closely in terms of what steps we take next,” Kelli Mosteller, executive director of the Harvard University Native American Program, recently told the Harvard Gazette, a university-sponsored publication.

A Senate Inquiry Into Institutions With the Largest Collections

In April, 13 U.S. senators pressed the five institutions with the most Native American remains to explain why decades later they still hadn’t repatriated their holdings. Citing ProPublica’s reporting, the senators asked how they made decisions and whether they accepted Indigenous knowledge as evidence in determining cultural connections.

Almost all said that they had begun working to establish better relationships with tribes only in the last several years.

The Illinois museum said it frequently initiates contact with tribes on repatriation, marking a change from how it previously approached NAGPRA work. In the past and under different leadership, ProPublica reported, the museum favored scientific and historical evidence despite the law’s requirement that various other forms of information, including oral history, have equal merit.

All five institutions said they value Indigenous knowledge as a form of evidence.

Megan Wood, director of the Ohio History Connection, said museum staff in June were “going through the entire collection box by box as requested” to fulfill a request from tribes to reunite each ancestor with items they were originally buried with. Chief Glenna J. Wallace of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma wrote a letter of support for the museum to the Senate committee, stating that leadership changes had led to “an awakening” at the Ohio History Connection.

“As a former vocal critic and now an advocate of the Ohio History Connection, I am confident you will witness long overdue dramatic changes in the near future,” Wallace wrote.

Federal data shows the museum did not complete any repatriations this year.

Neither did Indiana University. The school’s close tribal partner, the Miami Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma, declined to comment to ProPublica. But Julie Olds, the tribe’s cultural resource officer and NAGPRA committee chair, this summer told the National NAGPRA Review Committee during a hearing that the perceived slow pace of repatriation at the university is not reflective of the quality of its relationship with the tribes.

“From the vantage point of the Miami people, meaningful consultation has been going on for [a] significant period of time,” Olds told the committee.

Interior Department Says It Will Prioritize Repatriation

The rise in repatriations this year coincided with an Interior Department review of how NAGPRA should be enforced after tribes and descendants said overwhelmingly that the law was not working. The revamped federal rules will go into effect in January.

As Interior officials worked to finalize the new regulations this fall, they acknowledged in internal memos that the department itself holds one of the largest collections of Native American ancestors, echoing ProPublica’s analysis. In total, federal data shows Interior agencies have repatriated more than three-quarters of the human remains they have reported collecting from Native American gravesites. But the department’s efforts over the decades have still left it with the unrepatriated remains of more than 3,000 ancestors. There may also be more that the department has not yet accounted for, Interior’s chief of staff, Rachael Taylor, said in one memo.

She sent a Sept. 21 directive to agencies — including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service — to prioritize compliance with NAGPRA “with the clear intention” of completing repatriations. She noted that the department has a “critical leadership role” in complying with the law that it also administers and enforces.

A month later, Interior officials said in a follow-up memorandum that the department would centralize its repatriation policies and efforts rather than leave compliance decisions to a patchwork of agencies. These agencies maintain their own inventories of ancestral remains and items, which obscured the breadth of the Interior Department’s holdings under NAGPRA.

The new mandates mark a shift at Interior. Earlier this year, a spokesperson told ProPublica that Interior’s agencies were not required to consult with tribes about the possibility of repatriating human remains for which no tribal connection had been determined unless a tribe or Native Hawaiian organization made a formal request for them.

Now, the Interior Department says it will ensure “proactive compliance” with NAGPRA.

Emily Palus, who leads the Interior Department’s division of Museum and Cultural Resources, told the National NAGPRA Review Committee last month that the proposed new action plan is a “game changer.”

“I am saddened that it has taken this long,” she said.