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Dozens of Native remains from western Mass. still in museums, despite decades-old repatriation law

The number of human remains from Native tribes who are still boxed up on museum shelves across the U.S. is staggering — more than 108,000 according to the latest numbers reported under federal law.

The number is so large it could mask the fact that these are the remains of individual people — people who likely were buried by loved ones, probably with ceremony and tears.

Sixty-three lived in central and western Massachusetts, or were at least in the region when they died. They were buried in Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire and Worcester counties, according to a federal inventory.

Many were dug up on purpose by professional archaeologists and amateur collectors, and sometimes inadvertently by farmers and construction workers.

But now, proposed changes to federal regulationswould speed up repatriation — giving the museums two and half years to complete the administrative process.

"Part of what these changes are about is to put more power in the hands of the tribes," said Aaron Miller, who oversaw the repatriation of a Native ancestor at Mount Holyoke College.

When NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, became law in 1990, museums, libraries, schools — any institution that receives federal funding — were given five years to inventory the human remains and associated funerary objects in their collections and submit the lists to the federal government.

Inventories sometimes included the number of individuals' remains a museum had, who donated them and when, and where they were dug up or collected.

For example, according to an older NAGPRA database, one individual from Hampden County was donated to Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology by B.W. Lord on May 13, 1885, and was collected at a "Longmeadow Burial Place" on the Connecticut River.

The remains of another person in the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard from Deerfield were "found by Mr. Roswell Field on an unknown date before 1877. The remains were disinterred during the ploughing of a field."

Inventories might also include the museum's assessment of the time period and the tribe. In the case of the individual from Deerfield, the inventory reads "1500-1000 BP Pocumtuck."

Sometimes the museum had little or no information — for example, only the county or the state.

The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, had little documentation to go on when it began consulting last year with Native communities about two ancestors from Hampden County, as part of the NAGPRA repatriation process.

“Just little tiny pieces of paper, " Jason Vivori from the museum said in an interview last year "[The remains] were essentially river washout from an Indian burial ground, is what it says on the label.”

Now, after consulting with tribes, the Berkshire Museum is expecting a Native group to request to repatriate soon. Vivori said the museum hopes to respond quickly to that request.

Besides the Berkshire Museum, the NAGPRA database lists six other museums with remains from central and western Massachusetts.

Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, Connecticut, has the remains of seven ancestors from Franklin County. The museum has not begun consulting with Native communities, but plans to, and is adding two employees to its current repatriation staff of one.

It's not unusual for museums not to have enough staff or knowledge to handle the repatriation process — or that staff members who wrote the original inventories or who may have contacted tribes in the 1990s are now retired, along with their institutional memory.

Shelley Cathcart, curator at the Worcester Historical Museum, said the museum plans to secure funding to pay for someone to assist her with the repatriation process. The museum has the remains of one Native ancestor from Worcester County.

The NAGPRA database lists 25 individuals at the Springfield Science Museum, but the museum said it repatriated them in 2016. A museum said it has contacted the National Park Service, which oversees the NAGPRA program, to find out why there is no documentation of this.

Harvard's Peabody and Warren Anatomical museums have the remains of 22 Native people from western Massachusetts, according to the NAGPRA database. Rachel Dane, a spokesperson for Harvard Peabody, said in an email the museum planned to invite tribal communities to consult this winter. The museum plans to focus on federally recognized tribes.

"Though we are ready and willing to consult upon request from any tribe, federally recognized or not, we have not received any requests from tribes in Massachusetts or Connecticut," Dane wrote.

Five Native ancestors from Franklin County and one from Hampden County are in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

"To date, the Museum has not received a repatriation request for any of these materials but welcomes engagement with any interested native communities regarding these individuals," the museum said in an email.

Under the current regulations, if the remains are classified as "culturally unidentifiable," museums are not required to proactively reach out to Indian Tribes. Museums can be proactive but are not required to do so.

The proposed changes to the regulations would eliminate the culturally unidentifiable label. Museums would be required to take the initiative and proactively contact tribes about the remains.

The proposed rules are expected go into effect before the end of the year.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.

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