‘A somber undertaking’: Penn State renews efforts to return Native American remains

For decades, the remains of at least 56 Native Americans have sat inside a storage room on the second floor of Penn State’s Carpenter Building — out of sight from the public, but just yards away from unaware students roaming the halls on their way to class.

They’ve remained out of view for at least 30 years, visited only by one or two specially trained collections assistants with the university’s small anthropology museum, to ensure they continue to be free from molds and pests. But they’ve remained there, hundreds — and, in some cases, thousands — of miles away from their ancestral lands, in a building just 500 feet from the famed Nittany Lion Shrine.

Finally, that’s starting to change.

Although a more defined process to return the Native American remains has been in place for more than a decade, Penn State has placed a renewed emphasis on finding the homes for these human remains, most of which were donated in 1978 by the widow of a former employee, alum Howard K. Lucas, who “collected” them from the early 1900s through the 1930s. Putting these people to rest is no small task, considering the few notes that accompanied the collection and the time-consuming process to formally return ancestral remains when both the Tribe and exact location are unknown.

So far, the university is in discussions involving at least a half-dozen Tribes, from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) around Virginia to the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria in California. The ancestral remains of some 43 people, mostly craniums and jawbones, are already set to be returned and put to rest with those Tribes later this year.

“This is a somber undertaking, and it’s one we take very seriously,” said Miranda Panther, an officer for the EBCI Tribal Historic Preservation Office, who’s served as a collaborator between Penn State and Tribes around Virginia. “I think the importance is evident to all people regardless of race, creed or ethnicity. All people understand these remains, these people, should finally be able to rest.”

How we got here

Unfortunately, Penn State’s situation is far from unusual.

According to a program within the National Park Service, ancestral remains of more than 110,000 Native Americans still reside in museums and universities across the U.S., enough to fill Beaver Stadium to capacity. In the Big Ten, at least 10 schools had the ancestral remains of at least one Native American as of December, based on a database organized by ProPublica.

Indiana University has the most of any Big Ten school with the ancestral remains of at least 4,800 Native Americans — the fifth-largest collection in the nation. Joe Stahlman, director of the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum on Seneca Allegany Territory in Salamanca, New York, called the practice a “disgrace.”

“We all have human rights; my ancestors have rights,” Stahlman, a member of Tuscarora Nation, told the CDT. “I’m talking about basic human rights, of dignity, how we treat each other with care and compassion. You’re not seeing that with human beings turned into collections that sit in old boxes and bags in university repositories or museums.

“What kind of dignity is in that? I think it’s a disgrace.”

Stahlman isn’t alone. Society’s outlook on the practice has changed considerably over the years, although many museums and universities are still slow or hesitant to return the ancestral remains, with some citing scientific value. In 1873, the Smithsonian Institution paid soldiers up to the equivalent of $14,000 in today’s money for Native Americans’ equipment and everyday items. Twenty years later, Harvard’s archaeology museum curator paid a “self-taught archaeologist” to dig up ancestral remains and relics in southern Ohio. (The museum still has about 72% of the 1,830 human remains it reported in the 1990s, per ProPublica.)

In the early 1900s, excavations of burial mounds became more commonplace. And people who fancied themselves amateur archaeologists, possibly including Penn State’s Lucas, acquired Native American remains of their own — either through amateur digs or fellow collectors/dealers — despite a 1906 law that outlawed most of those practices, unless on private land.

It wasn’t until 1990 that Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which required institutions receiving federal funding to return Native American remains and sacred objects. Since that act, according to the National Park Service, less than half of all reported ancestral remains have been returned.

What’s taking so long?

Little information was provided when Lucas’ widow donated the ancestral remains to Penn State 45 years ago.

Brief notes informed the university that the remains of about 25 individuals came from Virginia (Smyth and Washington counties), 18 were taken from California (Humboldt and Modoc counties) and at least eight were removed from Minnesota (Cass County). But — outside of two individuals’ remains — the exact spots were unknown, the age of the ancestral remains was unknown and the Tribes were unknown.

It wasn’t until 2010 that NAGPRA was finally amended to address those kinds of issues, making it easier for museums and universities to make “culturally unidentified” remains available to recognized Tribes that had once inhabited such areas. Penn State’s then-director of the Matson Museum of Anthropology, Claire Milner, started new discussions with Tribes — Tribes had still been able to make claims on Penn State’s inventory — but those ultimately did not lead to their quick returns.

It wasn’t until new museum director James Doyle took over in 2021, with Penn State placing a renewed emphasis on the Native American remains, that the university started to see real progress. He reached out to Tribes historically from the noted areas, based on treaties as far back as the 1700s, sometimes picking up Milner’s old conversations and sometimes starting new ones.

“Penn State is and has been in compliance with NAGPRA and fully supports Matson Museum Director James Doyle’s efforts to return the small number of ancestral remains,” Timothy Ryan, head and professor of anthropology, said in a written statement. “These efforts reflect a longstanding priority of the Department of Anthropology and years of collaborative work together with Tribal partners and descendant communities to maintain a focus on ethical stewardship of our collections.”

On a recent afternoon, Doyle offered a brief pause before acknowledging the work has made him more emotional than he anticipated. He’s fielded phone calls, sent emails, spoken to local groups about the work and documented everything along the way.

“This is a very procedural thing that we can do and it’s a lot of work, but it actually can improve people’s lives,” said Doyle, who’s looking forward to opening a new anthropology museum next year.

Delays for returns can happen for a variety of reasons, from multiple claims on ancestral remains to underfunded Tribal Historic Preservation Offices to museums that might be slow to respond. Melanie O’Brien, manager for the National NAGPRA Program, once asked a Tribal member what a typical timeframe looks like: “It can take one email — or eight years,” came the response.

But O’Brien said she’s noticed a trend with such university returns.

“What we see a lot across the country — and it’s not Penn State-specific — is that there’s some catalyst that causes the museum to start engaging in the process that they’ve been able to engage in since 2010,” she told the CDT. “Since 2010, Penn State could have taken the same actions they took within the last year.

“It’s great. Obviously, we want repatriations to move forward. I just guess I’m pointing out that, before 2010, it was difficult. After 2010, it was relatively easy — and many museums have still not taken the easier path.”

Doyle is hoping all of the university’s ancestral remains, from at least 56 individuals, are returned by late 2024.

What comes next

Over the coming months, Doyle is expecting visits from the Klamath Tribes, the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. They’re then expected to return home with many of the ancestral remains held by Penn State.

Because it can’t be guaranteed that certain Native American remains 100% belong to a certain Tribe, given the poor documentation by Lucas, multiple Tribes might be involved in one return with several Tribes on-hand during a burial ceremony. Usually, however, one Tribe is appointed by others as the lead, and those on the West Coast will travel via commercial flight with the ancestral remains. (An officer with the Transportation Security Administration is set to help with the carry-on.)

It’s not ideal. But Panther, who works with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, said testing the ancestral remains to better narrow down the Tribes, by using Penn State’s Ancient DNA Lab or other sources, would be disrespectful to the dead and might not prove helpful in the end. Above all, she said, the priority isn’t necessarily to match the Native American remains with a Tribe at this point.

“Our priority is to put these people to rest,” she said, when asked if there’s ever concern a Tribe might bury someone who’s not a member. “In some cases, they’ve been put away in filing cabinets for decades. They’ve been away from their homes for a long time. They all deserve to finally rest in peace.”

Stahlman, who hasn’t worked directly with Penn State, agreed with that sentiment.

“We’re never going to know who every person belongs to or if there is even a community they belong to,” he said. “So as a human being who believes in the afterlife, the right thing to do is to rebury these people.”

Doyle, who previously worked seven years at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, is hoping new relationships are born out of these discussions and these returns. He envisions a future where maybe a Native American basket weaver, from one of the California Tribes, would be willing to visit the university and explain their art firsthand. Whatever the practice, Doyle wants Native Americans to help teach their own history.

A collection of objects found in Southwestern Pennsylvania that are representative of the Late Woodland Period in Pennsylvania on display at the Matson Museum of Anthropology on the Penn State campus on Feb. 14. No human remains or known sacred objects are on display and were officially removed from the museum’s listed holdings in 1987. They’ve remained in storage ever since.

But, even with the returns, Penn State still has its own complicated history with Native Americans. Land-grant institutions were created in the mid-1800s by selling off public lands — many Native American lands — in what some scholars have dubbed “settler colonialism.” (In response, the university adopted a land acknowledgment in 2021, recognizing more than a half-dozen Tribes as traditional stewards of the land.)

Still, neither Panther nor Stahlman hesitated when asked if future relationships were possible.

“We have to deal with the terrible stuff of the past because it doesn’t make us who we are forever,” Stahlman said. “We must heal and move forward.”

Doyle hopes the return of those ancestral remains, something he’s made a priority, will only help that process.

“For a lot of people, it’s a really violent and traumatic thing,” Doyle said, referring to the Native American remains being taken from their resting places. “So for me as an anthropologist, and for me as a museum professional, it’s incumbent upon us to do our very best to resolve that.

“I mean, nobody can erase the bad things that led to the collection of these remains. But we can at least try to build relationships with the descendants so that it can inform how we present anthropology to the public in the future.”