TRANSCRIPT: ‘For centuries, Native people have had everything stolen from them’
Posted: Thursday, February 1, 2024
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The following is a transcript of remarks delivered on February 1, 2024, by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, about the Native American Graves Protection Act and Repatriation Act.

For centuries, Native people have had everything stolen from them. Their lands, their water, their language, their children. It wasn’t that long ago that it was the official policy of the United States government to terminate the existence of tribes and to forcibly assimilate their citizens.

And a big part of that unrelenting, inhumane policy was that the remains of Native ancestors and culturally significant items were also taken from them. Not with permission, but by force. Not discovered, but stolen, on battlefields and in cemeteries, under the cover of darkness, or under guise of academic research. Think about that. The United States government literally stole bones.

Soldiers and agents overturned graves and took whatever they could find. And these were not isolated incidents. They happened all across the country. In my home state of Hawaii, the remains of Native Hawaiians, or iwi kupuna, as they are called, were routinely pillaged without regard for the sanctity of the burials or Native Hawaiian culture.

And all of it was brought to some of the most venerable institutions at home and abroad — to be studied like biological specimens displayed in museum exhibits as if they’re paintings on loan. Or squirreled away in a professor’s office closet, never to be seen again. The theft of hundreds of thousands of remains and items over generations was unconscionable in and of itself.

But the legacy of that cruelty continues to this very day because these museums and universities continue to hold on to these sacred items in violation of everything that is right and moral and — more importantly — in violation of federal law. To remedy this injustice, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, in 1990.

It required museums and universities to quickly return the remains. and the items that they were holding that belonged to Native Hawaiians, Alaska Natives and American Indians. At the time, the Congressional Budget Office anticipated that it would take about five years to complete the process of repatriation.

Thirty-four years later, it is nowhere close to being done. In fact, experts recently estimated that at the current rate, it may take up to 70 more years to complete the process.

Why? Why? Because these institutions, all otherwise well respected and sought after, have done everything in their power to obstruct and obfuscate when confronted about their collections.

They act as if this is some sort of impossible task, either administratively or in determining the lineage or providence of an item. They purposely miscategorize items as “culturally unidentifiable.” Culturally unidentifiable. They engage with Native communities as little as possible. They “borrow” collections from one another — so they can never actually be the owner responsible for them.

And maybe the most outrageous of all excuses, they claim that tribes and Native groups lack the ability to take care of their own things. Lack the ability to take care of their own items of cultural patrimony. Bones stolen from graves. This smells of the worst kind of colonialism with a thin veneer of progressive ideology and verbiage.

University provosts and presidents can do all of the land acknowledgments that they want. They can post lengthy statements about equity on their websites and champion any number of progressive causes. But that rings hollow when they are at the same time clinging on to vast collections of stolen items because of a perverse, patronizing sense of ownership.

This is not morally ambiguous. There’s nothing to ponder here. The fact is, these items do not belong in museums and universities, or to science, or academia. They belong to the Native people from which they came. Which is why the Committee on Indian Affairs, where I’m chair, held an oversight hearing on this issue almost two years ago. and demanded explanations from the foremost offenders about their delays in repatriating these items.

They are located all over the country. Ohio History Connection, the Illinois State Museum, Harvard University, the University of California, Berkeley, and Indiana University. Together, these five institutions still hold at least 30,000 Native ancestral remains.

These institutions have been responsive, and many have accelerated their repatriation efforts since. Earlier this month, Harvard, which has the third largest collection of these items in the country, pledged to cover the travel expenses of Native leaders to facilitate the repatriation process.

Other museums, including the American Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum, have recently announced steps to finally comply with the federal law. And yet, there are still more than 70 other institutions holding almost 58,000 ancestral remains.

And that’s not counting the additional hundreds of thousands of cultural items in their collections. These museums and universities are everywhere.

The University of Tennessee. The University of Kentucky, the University of Alabama, the University of Arizona, the University of Florida, the University of Missouri Columbia, the University of Oklahoma, the Center for American Archaeology in Illinois, the University of Texas at Austin, the Milwaukee Public Museum, and so on.

This is just a small sample, and I will enter the full list into the record. But the point is this. We’re not done. Our work is not over.

These are the supposedly liberal institutions who have no problem parroting whatever progressive expression is in vogue and yet at the same time they continue a colonial project against the explicit and repeated wishes of Native people.

If you say you’re for equal justice, for doing right by the people of all backgrounds, then act like it. Return these remains and items to the Native people.

Some of the challenges when it comes to addressing past injustices in American history can seem so big as to be totally overwhelming. Where do you start?

But this is not one of them. Returning these items matters, and the good news is it’s immediately doable. But doable only if we collectively agree that getting this right is a necessary condition for justice to be restored. Doing this alone will not right past wrongs or somehow erase a long and brutal history of injustice.

Of course it won’t. Native people still need money for water and electricity and health care. They still, as ever, need the unimpeded right to self-determination.

But the least we can do — and I mean that — the least we can do, is enable them to tell their own stories. and to define themselves, for themselves, to the rest of the world.

Give the items back. Comply with federal law. Hurry. Devote resources to this. Demonstrate in three dimensions that you care about the values that you espouse.

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that my full remarks be entered into the record. And the list of institutions in possession of the unrepatriated remains also be submitted to the record.

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