Shared from the 2/25/2024 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette NW eEdition

Arkansas museums in line on repatriation

A new federal rule to speed up repatriation of Native American remains, funerary objects and sacred items has museums across the country scrambling to remove objects from display, cover exhibits or even close entire exhibit halls.

But it apparently won’t have much effect in Arkansas.

That’s because the vast majority of documented Indian remains in the state are at the University of Arkansas, and they’ve already been made available for return to the tribes.

The new rule, which went into effect last month, requires museums to get approval from tribes before exhibiting or doing research on human remains or associated cultural items under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, also known as NAGPRA.

But the UA has been doing that since the 1990s, said Mary Suter, curator of collections for the University of Arkansas Museum.

“We ask the tribes if the object is NAGPRA-related,” she said. “However, we just make it a practice to use non-NAGPRA objects for exhibits.”

The UA museum closed its public functions in 2003, but its collections remain open and are used for classes, by researchers, and as exhibit loans.

Since 2003, the museum hasn’t been able to do large-scale new exhibits, so the issue really hasn’t come up, said Suter.

“For the small exhibits we do now, it’s easy to find non-NAGPRA objects in our teaching and unprovenienced collections,” she said. “The question of approvals comes up more often if another institution wants to borrow something from our collection. If it’s NAGPRA-related, they have to contact the appropriate tribe before we’ll loan it.”


The UA has the remains of more than 3,000 American Indians, and has made more than 97% of them available for return to the tribes, according to a database compiled by ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom that does investigative journalism. ProPublica says the data was updated Nov. 29, 2023.

According to the database, the UA ranks No. 8 nationally in the number of remains made available for return.

Of the more than 3,000 total, according to ProPublica, the remains of 1,298 Native Americans were made available for return by the museum , and 1,965 were made available for return from the Arkansas ArcheologicalSurvey , which is part of the University of Arkansas System.

The survey and museum are both housed in the same building at 2475 N. Hatch Fayetteville, 2 miles north of the UA campus.

Suter pointed out that the survey has already made all of its remains available for return to the tribes.

Nonetheless, Sarah Shepard, the survey’s registrar and NAGPRA coordinator, noted in an article this month on the survey’s website that more could be found.

The survey is taking inventory of its collections, “and there is a strong chance that more Native American remains and/or funerary objects will be identified,” she wrote.

Suter said the museum has made all its associated remains available for return to the Caddo and Quapaw tribes. The Osage will be next, after the museum gets a grant from the National Park Service to help pay for the cataloging.

According to ProPublica, the museum has 96 items that have yet to be returned.

Suter said she’s not so sure about the exact number because such things are in flux.

Occasionally, someone will walk in with a box of artifacts that were unearthed by their parents decades ago at an Indian mound in Arkansas — pottery, arrowheads … and sometimes bones.

“Their children don’t want them,” so those items are often donated to the museum, said Suter.

“We like that it comes back so we can make it accessible to the tribes,” she said.

Suter said remains can refer to anything from a tooth to an entire skeleton, each of which would be counted as the remains of one ancestor.

Another thing that can cause the numbers to fluctuate is the size of the UA’s collection. Suter said the museum has an estimated 7.5 million items, which includes 6,000 whole “vessels,” otherwise known as pots. Sometimes researchers find something in the museum’s collection they didn’t know they had.

The UA has had a museum since 1873, two years after the university was founded, said Suter.

“It started out as the geology cabinet because in the late 1800s the state was exploring its natural resources,” she said.


The Native AmericanGraves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed in 1990, but many institutions were slow to make items available to Indian tribes.

A new rule from the Biden administration that went into effect in January gives museums and other institutions five years to update inventories of Indian remains and make them available for repatriation to the tribes.

But another part of the new rule took effect immediately. It gives the tribes — instead of academics — final say over whether remains are exhibited or made available for research.

Museums must “obtain free, prior, and informed consent from lineal descendants, Indian Tribes, or Native Hawaiian organizations prior to allowing any exhibition of, access to, or research on human remains or cultural items,” according to the new rule.

Tribes want researchers to consult with them before items are put on display, said Suter.

But that’s not going to change what we do too much, she said.

That’s because in the 1990s, former UA anthropology professor Michael Hoffman and former Arkansas Archeological Survey director Thomas Green decided not to do anything with Indian artifacts unless the tribes were consulted, Suter said.

Besides human remains, NAGPRA also applies to associated funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony (objects that have ongoing historical, traditional or cultural importance central to a Native American group). Any institution that receives federal funding is legally obligated to comply with the law.

“At its most basic, NAGPRA is a civil rights law,” Shepard wrote in the survey article. “Why is it acceptable for someone to own the remains of an ancestral Native American when it is not acceptable for someone to go out and unlawfully dig up human remains of another culture now?”

Referring to whether there has been a de-emphasis on archeological digs since NAGPRA went into effect, Shepard wrote in an email: “If anything has been cause for concern regarding additional excavations, it would be the amount of collections already in curation (in ours and nationwide) that are still in need of proper inventory and analysis. You have to consider the ethical obligations of caring for what’s already been unearthed when considering the potential of adding material to that.”

Many archeological digs took place in Arkansas in the 1920s and ’30s, Suter said, and again in the late 1950s and early ’60s, prior to dams’ being built on rivers to create reservoirs. Some of the UA’s collection came from sites outside Arkansas.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Samuel Dellinger was curator of the museum and head of the UA’s zoology department for more than 30 years beginning in the mid-1920s.

He “built the museum’s archaeology collection into one of the best in the nation,” according to the encyclopediaentry .

Suter said the the museum has made the remains of Qua-paw and Caddo available for return, and notices were published in the Federal Register.

Suter said most tribes have chosen to leave their remains with the survey and museum, where there’s room for storage in climate-controlled conditions. They just want to know the remains are being treated with care and respect.

She said members of the Tunica-Biloxi tribe did travel to Fayetteville to take possession of remains from the survey.

Suter said the museum collections contain remains of the three main tribes that occupied Arkansas at the time of European contact: Quapaw, Caddo and Osage.

When contacted about the items yet to be returned, Sarah O’Donnell, NAGPRA coordinator with Osage Nation Historic Preservation in Pawhuska, Okla., had no comment.

“The Osage Nation considers NAGPRA activities a private and highly sensitive matter,” she wrote in an email. “The ONHPO, following the guidance of Osage elders, does not provide comment on specific active consultations.”

She included a link to the Osage Nation’s official statement on NAGPRA: culture/historic-preservation-office/osage-nation-and-nagpra


Angie Albright, director of the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale, said ProPublica’s database wasn’t very accurate concerning Shiloh.

ProPublica lists Shiloh as having made the remains of four Native Americans available for return to the tribes, but not making the remains of two others available.

Albright said the museum has actually repatriated one set of partial remains to the Caddo Nation, but the other five sets of remains in the museum’s possession are unidentifiable as far as tribal affiliation goes.

“They would be available for return if we knew where they went,” she said.

“Shiloh Museum of Ozark History originally had the remains of six humans as a part of the Guy Howard collection that founded the museum [which opened in 1968],” said Albright. “When NAGPRA became law in 1990, museum staff worked to comply with the stipulations of that law, which took considerable time, from the 1990s to the early 2000s.”

Because the other five sets of remains aren’t identifiable, they remain at Shiloh Museum “where we care for them ethically and as legally required,” said Albright.

“The recent updates to NAGPRA mean that in the near future we are going to revisit our care, exhibition, and handling of those remains,” she said. “In part, we want to ensure we are in compliance with the new laws. More importantly, we want to ensure that we are taking full advantage of current technologies and ethical best practices for handling of these remains as well as other Native American artifacts in our collections.”


According to ProPublica, the Arkansas Department of Transportation has made all 133 remains in its possession available for return to six different tribes. Besides the Quapaw, Caddo and Osage, the repatriation included the Cherokee Nation, the United Keetoowah Band of the Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma, and the Tunica-Biloxi Indian Tribe.

The remains came from 12 sites excavated from 1960 to 2004 as part of bridge replacement, highway widening and/or rerouting, and new bypass projects, said Dave Parker, a spokesman for the transportation department.

“For certain projects, the department consulted with tribe,” he said. “The tribe decided the disposition of the human remains and grave goods, and the department fulfilled the tribe’s request.”

He said the inventory and repatriation work was done in 2016 and 2017.

If tribal affiliation wasn’t clear, the transportation department consulted with the Arkansas Archeological Survey to catalog and transfer the remains and burial items for storage at the university in Fayetteville, said Parker.


The Museum of Native American History in Benton-ville doesn’t fall under NAGPRA because it receives no federal funding.

“But we always strive to follow NAGPRA policies,” said David Bogle, the museum’s chairman.

“We have Chairperson Bobby Gonzalez of the Cad-do Nation on our board of directors,” Bogle said. “He was head of the NAGPRA department for the Caddo Nation. I rely on his guidance when decisions concerning NAGPRA come up.

“We do not have any human remains and never have. … The Museum of Native American History has some funerary pieces on display. We are in the process of making sure we follow NAGPRA rules for all our artifacts.”


The ProPublica database lists the city of Fort Smith as having one item that would fall under NAGPRA that hasn’t been made available for return to the tribe.

Caroline Speir, who has been executive director of the Fort Smith Museum of History since 2019, said the database appears to be referring to Native American remains that were given to the UA museum decades ago to curate.

But those remains are still listed as being under the control of the Fort Smith museum, she said.

“I know for a fact they’re not here,” she said.

See this article in the e-Edition Here