Federal Funding Has Incentivized Institutions to Hold on to—and Even Destroy—Native Remains, a New Report Suggests

The report, published by ProPublica, said tribal artifacts are being held in labs instead of being repatriated. 

Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, 2018. Photo: Josh Ewing, Friends of Cedar Mesa. Courtesy of the World Monuments Fund.

Government grants have incentivized researchers to hold onto—and even destroy—Native American human remains, according to a new ProPublica investigation.

Since 1990, federal agencies have awarded at least $15 million to universities and museums for research projects involving Native cultures, the report, published this week, revealed. But the financial support has had adverse consequences, too: in some cases, cultural artifacts have remained in labs instead of being repatriated; in others, they’ve been intentionally damaged through analysis. 

Instances like these may constitute violations of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which requires federally funded institutions to inventory and return human remains, sacred objects, and other items to lineal descendants and affiliated tribes. These cases have also raised questions over who the research is actually for.  

“There’s somehow this perspective that this kind of research will enhance us or benefit us,” Theresa Pasqual, director of the historic preservation office for the Pueblo of Acoma, told ProPublica. “What it does is it bolsters their careers; it bolsters their professional, academic standing. Let’s be real about it.” 

ProPublica’s report points to several examples of how research projects have undermined the aims of NAGPRA. Twenty years ago, a University of Utah anthropology professor named Joan Brenner Coltrain obtained funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to analyze human remains held at Harvard’s Peabody Museum. Her proposal for the project promised that it would “undoubtedly influence” the institution’s repatriation decisions. 

The work saw the anthropologist shatter sections of her subjects’ bones to study their mitochondrial DNA. Ultimately, the research proved disappointing, Brenner Coltrain later said in a grant report to the NSF. The Peabody Museum made no repatriations after the project, according to ProPublica. 

When NAGPRA was passed in 1990, Congress estimated that thousands of Native objects would be returned within a decade. But as of this year, the remains of more than 110,000 Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Natives’ ancestors still reside in institutional collections. The discrepancy has led to complaints about the wording of the law and the loopholes it presents.  

According to ProPublica’s report, it took a full decade after NAGPRA’s passing for the American Museum of Natural History and Harvard to inventory their collections of Native American remains. When those inventories were finally shared with the National Park Service, as required by the act, the majority of the remains were categorized as “culturally unidentifiable,” meaning that it was unclear which tribe, if any, they belonged to. The designation effectively allows the institutions to continue using these remains for research purposes, since one is able to legally claim them. 

Earlier this year, the Department of the Interior proposed regulations for NAGPRA and how the act is enforced. If adopted, the changes would require researchers to demonstrate that they have consulted with tribes before obtaining an NSF grant. It would also call for institutions to stop research on Native American remains if requested by a tribe. 

The new regulations could go into effect as soon as January 2024, the Department of the Interior said. 


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