Over the last century, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History has been storing ancient Native American remains. The bones sat on shelves in the state’s collections. Now the state is returning them to be laid to rest on Mississippi soil.
Many dozens of tribes, including the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Cherokee, once lived across millions of acres throughout the American Southeast. The U.S. government forcibly and sometimes violently removed them following the Indian Removal Act of the 1830s.
Following the Great Depression, workers constructing reservoirs in the Southeast disrupted thousands of graves, sending human remains, beads, vessels, and tools found in burial sites to museums across the country.
However, in 1990, the federal government passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The act requires institutions like museums and schools to return human remains, funerary objects, and other sacred items to their Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian descendants.
But implementing NAGPRA has moved faster in some states than in others. A survey of institutions in 2019-20 found that obstacles include funding, time, and incomplete or inaccurate information in catalog records about Native American collections. There’s also some fear among museum professionals, Amati says.
“I think one of the fears is that they’ve done something wrong,” Anne Amati, NAGPRA coordinator with the University of Denver Museum of Anthropology, says. “They don’t want to get in trouble, whether it’s with the government or with tribes.”
More and more institutions are becoming engaged in the repatriation process, the returning of the remains to their proper place. As of last fall, around 83,000 Native American remains had been returned to descendants. At least 116,000 more still need to be returned.
“We see the repatriation process as an act of love,” says Amber Hood, Director of Historic Preservation and Repatriation for The Chickasaw Nation. “These are our grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, and cousins from long ago.”
Delta farmers in Mississippi discovered many Chickasaw remains while developing land in the 1950s to 1970s. They found a man and a woman buried among wolf teeth and turtle shells. Some tribal members lay alongside beloved dogs. Other graves contained mothers and infants.
Meg Cook, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History’s director of archaeology, says the state has not only a legal responsibility to return remains but also an ethical one. Repatriations are now the main priority for the state’s archaeology collection.
“We’re doing everything that we can to reconcile the past and move forward,” she says. “It’s our responsibility to tell the Mississippi story. And that means all of the bad parts too.”
There are still more than 1,000 remains to be identified and returned to tribes in Mississippi. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) has worked to create bonds with its 11 tribal partners, not only to repatriate remains but also to uplift historically underrepresented voices. A sign above a door at MDAH now reads, “This is a reverent space. Please respect the individuals that are resting here.”
The Chickasaw Nation asked MDAH to transport remains and objects from their ancestors in muslin bags, which will decompose in soil when reburied. During the pandemic, volunteers made the bags at home.
Cook says, “Volunteers knew they were helping in some ways to bring these people home, to put them to rest.”
Looking forward to the city . . . whose designer and builder is God. — Hebrews 11:10
(Meg Cook, left, Jessica Walzer, second from left, Robert Waren, second from right, and Arianna Kitchens, outside an archaeology collections storage room in Jackson, Mississippi. AP/Rogelio V. Solis)