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Mary Hudetz Honored with 2024 Richard LaCourse Award for Investigative Journalism

The Indigenous Journalists Association has named ProPublica reporter Mary Hudetz (Apsaalooke/Crow) as the recipient of the 2024 Richard LaCourse Award for Investigative Journalism in recognition of her work on ProPublica’s The Repatriation Project. ProPublica reporter Logan Jaffe; Ash Ngu, formerly of ProPublica; and Graham Brewer, formerly of NBC News, also contributed to the series. This annual award spotlights groundbreaking work by journalists who creatively use digital tools in their role as community watchdog. Special consideration is given to journalism that helps a community understand and address important issues.

The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires museums and other institutions to provide summaries of their holdings to tribes and federal officials — which then allows tribes or descendants to begin the process of reclaiming the items or their ancestors’ remains. Hudetz, Jaffe and Ngu set out to learn why, more than three decades after the passage of NAGPRA, so much of the repatriation work required by the law was still undone. Their reporting, some in partnership with Brewer, revealed how museums and universities have actively fought against repatriating Native American remains and sacred objects plundered over the centuries. Some of these institutions had historically encouraged the looting to build their collections.

Their investigation began with a first-of-its-kind analysis of repatriation data, spearheaded by Ngu. It revealed that less than half of the 210,000 human remains institutions reported holding in their collections following the law’s passage had been returned. ProPublica published the information in a searchable tool that showed where the remains were looted, the percentage made available for repatriation and other data that showed whether institutions complied with NAGPRA. The reporting team also incorporated information from the Federal Register to make the database searchable by tribal nations for the first time.

Almost from the day the first story was published, museum after museum apologized and announced it would speed up its repatriation efforts and allocate more money to them. Citing reporting from the project, members of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs demanded to know why museums had failed for decades to return thousands of human remains to tribes. “It’s inexcusable, it’s immoral, it’s hypocritical and it has to stop,” said committee chair Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. Illinois passed a law 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.

In part because of ProPublica’s work, American museums and universities in 2023 repatriated more ancestral remains and sacred objects to tribal nations than in any year during the three decades since NAGPRA’s passage, transferring ownership of an estimated 18,800 Native American ancestors. And more repatriations are forthcoming, as institutions filed 380 notices — more than in the previous two years combined — declaring that they plan to make human remains and burial items available to tribes.

“The Repatriation Project by Mary Hudetz and her team has had rippling effects at the institutional level down to Indigenous communities and peoples, which sets the bar for future investigative work and redefines what it means to make an impact,” said IJA Vice President Jourdan Bennett-Begaye (Diné).

Read more about the IJA Indigenous Media Awards.

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