Content Warning: This document contains information on the fate of stolen ancestors.

"The looting and trafficking of Native Ancestors and their burial belongings from their resting places, and the illicit trading and collecting of sacred objects and cultural heritage is an abuse of Indigenous human rights recognized by Articles 11 and 12 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples." ~ The Association of American Indian Affairs

Museums, like history itself, are living narratives. They evolve alongside our understanding of the past, and sometimes, that means confronting uncomfortable truths. This is the story of the Puget Sound Museum’s ongoing work regarding the repatriation and rematriation of stolen ancestors. We share the following information as a way to acknowledge the university's history.

Since 2005, the Puget Sound Museum has been working with tribal communities to return stolen ancestors to their relatives. In contrast to institutions like the Smithsonian, ancestors did not come to the Puget Sound Museum as the result of active research programs. Rather, local residents, museum staff, professors, and even law enforcement brought ancestral remains to the museum, where they lay forgotten and unexamined for decades. During most of the twentieth century, however, the Puget Sound museum accepted ancestral remains without questioning their right to do so. This fact reflects a long practice among scientists (including physicians, anthropologists, and naturalists) of dispersing non-European remains to natural history museums while burying European remains in marked graves. This difference in treatment is in turn symbolic of how natural history museums often both embraced and reified racialized ladders of human beings that dehumanized Indigenous communities and individuals.

From the beginning, naturalists encountered significant resistance from Indigenous communities whose ancestors museums deemed appropriate to “collect.” Throughout the 19th century, however, laws codified the racism embedded in such practices. Although grave-robbing laws existed in many new states and territories, they were often selectively applied to whites. Meanwhile, the theft of ancestors was justified by appeals to the advancement of (settler) science. Opposition to museums’ plundering of Indigenous graves can be found throughout the records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Ultimately, the organized activism of the American Indian Movement led to the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act. Meanwhile, biologists, anthropologists, and natural history museums slowly set aside the racist frameworks used to justify accepting Indigenous remains. Since 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), has provided the legal framework through which U.S. museums must inventory their collections, notify descendants, and return ancestors home. (In practice, the Act’s design and implementation is controversial, since institutions - rather than Indigenous communities - have the final say on whether remains can be identified as ancestral to particular tribes or nations).

The Puget Sound Museum is committed to reckoning with how its history and collections are complicit in the dehumanization of and violence inflicted upon Indigenous communities. The timeline below records the museum’s (ongoing) repatriation/rematriation work. This work required the participation of dozens of individuals and communities. The Museum would like to express profound gratitude to the affected tribal communities, for whom repatriation, rematriation, and reinterment can be so profoundly bittersweet.

This work took place on, and the Puget Sound Museum continues to exist on, the traditional homelands of the Puyallup tribe. The Puyallup people have lived on and stewarded these lands since the beginning of time, and continue to do so today.

 

Timeline

  • 1888 — College of Puget Sound is founded on the homelands of the Puyallup and Coast Salish Nations.

  • 1926 — Biology faculty establish a natural history collection in the newly erected Howarth Hall.

  • 1946 — Puget Sound Museum is formally established.

  • 1925-1975 — The museum accepts 28 sets of human remains.

  • 1990 — Congress passed NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Today, the National Park Service maintains information on the policies and procedures set up by NAGPRA. "Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, when an institution establishes a connection between tribes and remains, it must publish a list of the tribes eligible to make a repatriation claim. The remains are then made available for return to the tribe(s)." ~ Propublica

  • 2005 — During an inventory of the museum collection in preparation for a move and renovations, students found human remains in a storage room and brought them to museum staff. With the help of the Burke Museum in Seattle, museum staff initiated the NAGPRA process by hiring a physical anthropologist to determine whether any of the remains are Native American in origin. The remains were determined to represent 28 Native American individuals and the work of trying to determine "cultural affiliation" so that all remains can be made “available for return” began. Two sets of remains were determined to be of European origin.

  • Between 2005-2007 (and 2011 for culturally unidentified individuals) — “Notices of Inventory Completion” were composed by museum staff (in consultation with NAGPRA, the Burke Museum, and tribal communities) for all ancestors and published in the Federal Register.

  • Between 2006 and 2023 — The Puget Sound Museum worked with tribal communities to return 17 ancestors to the lands currently known as Alaska, Oregon, and Washington. PSM and the Burke Museum repatriated all 5 “culturally unaffiliated” remains as the result of work with all Washington state tribes and nations.

  • Spring 2008 — Puget Sound magazine ARCHES published a story on repatriation efforts by the museum and tribal consultants.

  • 2020 — The nonprofit organization ProPublica developed a database of the more than 210,000 stolen people (at least half of whom are still held by US museums). ProPublica indicates that the PSM made all ancestors and funerary belongings available for return.

  • Fall 2023 — The Puget Sound Museum is working to return the remaining ancestors. The museum is awaiting word regarding relatives’ preferred date for the return of the one ancestor from the lands currently known as Oregon, and is in contact with First Nation administrators for guidance on how to return five ancestors to what is presently known as Canada.