A Scientist Said Her Research Could Help With Repatriation. Instead, It Destroyed Native Remains.
Federal agencies have awarded millions of dollars to scientific studies on Native American human remains, undermining the goals of NAGPRA as tribes fight for repatriation.
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Two decades ago, an anthropology professor at the University of Utah asked the National Science Foundation to fund research on Native American ancestors to determine when the cultivations of crops like corn first became prevalent in their cultures.
The studies, according to the research proposals, would involve analyzing Ancestral Pueblo remains that museums had excavated around 1900 from some of the Southwest’s most sacred sites: a deep rift that winds through Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, an ancient village near cliff dwellings in Colorado and the remnants of a settlement at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico that dates back more than a thousand years. Nearly all of the remains were held at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
The analysis would destroy portions of the ancestral remains but yield valuable information, including a more precise date of when the individuals lived, Joan Brenner Coltrain, the Utah professor, said in the research proposals. This information could help the institutions finally return the remains to descendant tribes, she said at the time.
The NSF provided $222,218 under two grants for research that spanned eight years, starting in 2002. But the studies never resulted in Harvard or the AMNH repatriating human remains to any of the tribes that trace their ancestry to sites studied by Brenner Coltrain, including the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico and the Hopi in Arizona.
Instead, the work inspired even more destructive research on ancestral remains by other scientists supported by federal funding and done without the consent of tribes, many of which view such studies as a violation of their traditions and beliefs.
“There’s somehow this perspective that this kind of research will enhance us or benefit us,” said Theresa Pasqual, director of the historic preservation office for the Pueblo of Acoma. “What it does is it bolsters their careers; it bolsters their professional, academic standing. Let’s be real about it.”
In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, anticipating that within a decade federally funded museums and universities would return tens of thousands of ancestral remains and burial items. But as ProPublica reported this year, U.S. museums continue to hold the remains of more than 100,000 Native American ancestors, almost all of which they say are “culturally unidentifiable,” meaning they are unable to determine which tribe, if any, can rightfully claim them.
ProPublica found that by funding scientific studies on Native American human remains, the NSF and other federal agencies have created incentives for institutions to hold on to ancestors in ways that undermine the goals of NAGPRA. Federal agencies have awarded at least $15 million to universities and museums for such research since the law’s passage, a ProPublica review found.
As a result, tribes have been not only denied opportunities to reclaim and rebury their ancestors, but also excluded from having a say over the treatment of the remains.
“There’s this perverse sense of ownership, that ‘these are our samples.’ And ‘You know, we’re protecting it for the good of research,’” said Krystal Tsosie, a Navajo Nation citizen and assistant professor at Arizona State University whose research focuses on genetics and bioethics.
When another group of researchers was set to publish a study that had involved damaging Native American remains — including two from Chaco Canyon used in the Brenner Coltrain research — some on the team questioned the ethics of moving forward without permission or input from tribes. But an AMNH curator, who was listed as a contributor to the study, discouraged outreach to Pueblo leaders, according to previously unreported emails. Involving them could cause researchers to lose control of the project, he wrote.
The fallout from that study led the AMNH in 2020 to ban destructive research on human remains.
The museum said in response to questions from ProPublica that it has not repatriated the ancestral remains used in the studies because no tribes have formally claimed them under the law. Pueblo representatives have continued to visit the AMNH and meet with staff about its collection, the statement added.
Several tribal members and representatives interviewed for this story said museums’ demands that tribes initiate the repatriation process place an unfair burden on them to do the work of addressing the looting of Indigenous graves.
“The museums tend to think of all these objects as their personal property, and they don’t want to turn it back over to the tribes even though much of it was unscrupulously obtained,” said Kurt Dongoske, who is a tribal historic preservation officer for Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico.
The AMNH also said it is not aware of scientific research it authorized yielding enough information to allow for repatriation decisions.
Harvard, which declined to comment after receiving questions from ProPublica, has prohibited research on ancestral remains and items subject to NAGPRA under a temporary policy that allows an exception for studies done with tribal consent. The university has acknowledged publicly that as a premier research institution, it long ignored the wishes of tribal communities while benefiting from collections of their ancestral remains amassed through excavations and donations.
This year, the Interior Department is reviewing proposed regulations that would require institutions to halt research on Native American remains if requested by a tribe. The NSF said in response to written questions from ProPublica that it is committed to engaging more with tribes and is now beginning to standardize policies for funding research that impacts them. Under draft guidelines that could go into effect in January, the agency said, it would require all researchers to show that they have consulted with tribes on their research proposals before obtaining an NSF grant.
Still, the NSF and other federal agencies have continued to fund research on Indigenous remains in recent years.
Involving Indigenous groups in research can add to researchers’ understanding of ancestors’ lives and belongings, said Pasqual, of Acoma Pueblo. Without this context, scientific studies are incomplete, she said.
Pasqual’s background in archeology helps her understand how science’s view of her ancestors differs from that of her tribe’s culture. Scientists and museums, she believes, have long viewed ancestors’ remains as objects, specimens or property. Pueblo people have a continuing relationship with their ancestors and an obligation to steward them.
“There are a lot of folks who may see ancestors as being an open resource to do different types of DNA testing,” she said. “We recognize that there is an ethical obligation.”
"The Law is So Vague"
For nearly two centuries, museums and universities used science to justify building and keeping massive collections of Native American human remains.
Harvard, which today holds the remains of 6,000 Native Americans, opened the Peabody museum in 1866 with a handful of pottery and other items, plus a small collection of Indigenous remains that were used to analyze the “anatomical characteristics” of the races, according to the museum’s first annual report, issued two years later.
By 1900, an AMNH anthropologist with medical training, Aleš Hrdlička, set up a makeshift laboratory in Chaco Canyon’sPueblo Bonito, a sprawling multistory settlement with hundreds of rooms and dozens of kivas, spaces that have long been used among Pueblo tribes and the Hopi for ceremonial and social purposes.
Hrdlička conducted his work as the expedition’s archaeologists cleared rooms in the “great house,” including a chamber the archaeologists labeled Room 33 where 14 people had been buried along with ceramics and thousands of pieces of turquoise. The team began taking remains and objects and sending them to New York by train, until concerns about looting at the canyon prompted a federal probe.
One of the expedition’s benefactors defended the work as a scientific enterprise, not a looting one. But the investigation still halted the excavation, and the investigator recommended making Chaco Canyon a national park to protect it.
Of the more than 150 ancestral remains from Chaco Canyon at the AMNH, Hrdlička helped unearth more than half, according to the museum’s inventory provided to the National Park Service under NAGPRA.
David Hurst Thomas, a longtime archaeologist, said he considered the Chaco Canyon holdings to be the AMNH’s most important collection from the continent when he first stepped into his role as the museum’s curator of North American archeology in the 1970s.
“There are people who want to call that looting, and certainly by 21st-century standards that’s true,” said Thomas, who’s now retired. “But by late 19th-century standards, that’s one of the best digs in the country.”
Frustration that institutions had treated Native American ancestors as scientific specimens played a major role in driving Indigenous rights activists to push for federal repatriation legislation. When Congress passed NAGPRA in 1990, lawmakers anticipated repatriation would be completed within five to 10 years. As a result, the law is limited in how it addresses scientific analysis.
“The whole concept of NAGPRA was to return these collections to tribes, so that they would have rights over them. They would be able to authorize or not authorize testing,” said Melanie O’Brien, manager of the National Park Service’s National NAGPRA Program. “But that didn't happen.”
Congress simply did not envision that 33 years later institutions would be where they are now — holding tens of thousands of Native American remains they have designated as “culturally unidentifiable” and allowing them to be used for research, said O’Brien.
The law states that it should not be interpreted as authorizing new scientific studies to advance repatriation efforts. It also says that the only justification for halting repatriations in order to conduct research is if it is considered so important that the findings would be in the national interest. And even in such cases, institutions have three months from the study’s conclusion to return the human remains and items to tribes, according to the law.
No institution has ever sought an exemption for such a study, according to O’Brien.
Stewart Koyiyumptewa, the Hopi Tribe’s cultural preservation office director, believes NAGPRA should clearly acknowledge tribes’ right to have a say over studies of their ancestors, including those that involve taking and examining samples of their DNA. “But the law is so vague,” he said.
In a letter commenting on the Interior Department’s proposed regulations, Koyiyumptewa said clarifying this would help prevent remains or objects in museums pending repatriation from being used for scientific or museum work.
From the perspective of his culture, Koyiyumptewa said, samples extracted for DNA research and other studies still represent the remnants of a person and should be respected. “Even though the person may be deceased,” he said, “that small sample still has life.”
Alyssa Bader, who is Tsimshian and an assistant professor of anthropology at McGill University in Montreal, agrees that tribes should have a say over the treatment of biological samples of ancestral remains used in research.
But this work can be done ethically, Bader said.
She has collaborated with Indigenous communities to examine the diets of Tsimshian ancestors and how foods have changed in the distant and recent past. As her partners, Indigenous groups help shape research questions in ways that can benefit their communities.
This collaborative work requires more time and money but it is worth the investment, Bader said. “I 100% believe that it produces better research.”
Pursuing Research, Not Repatriation
Soon after NAGPRA’s passage, NSF records show, some institutions began to seek grants to preserve Ancestral remains for future scientific study, even though Congress had called for museums to be “expeditious” in returning them to tribes. At the time, many museums had not yet fulfilled the law’s requirement to inventory their collections.
It would take a full decade from the law’s passage — years longer than expected — for the American Museum of Natural History and Harvard to fully review their collections. The park service had extended deadlines for the institutions with vast collections to file inventories of the items and human remains that had been taken from Native American burials. In 2000, both finally reported that most of their holdings subject to the law could not be culturally affiliated, claiming they did not have enough information to make repatriation decisions.
For example, the AMNH declared its entire Chaco Canyon collection to be “culturally unidentifiable.” In federal records, the museum said that people’s migrations from the canyon in the 1300s to villages in Arizona and New Mexico where their descendants now live left gaps in archaeologists’ knowledge about the region.
Martha Graham, who oversaw the museum’s NAGPRA compliance in the 1990s, told ProPublica that because multiple tribes claimed ties to the canyon, institutions needed even more time than the park service had granted them to consult with the tribes. Graham, who is from New Mexico and briefly worked for the park service at Chaco Canyon, said she appreciated the connection that the tribes, including the Hopi, had to the area. She left her job in 2001. But had she stayed, she would have pressed the museum to revisit its conclusion that it could not identify which tribes could reclaim what it held from the site, she told ProPublica. “We were pretty explicit, as I recall,” about the need for that to happen, said Graham.
In a statement, the museum said the work of “affiliating” collections did not end when it filed its inventory with the park service in 2000 and is ongoing. But the museum has not revised its decision, though it said it recognizes multiple Pueblo tribes’ ties to the canyon.
Thomas, the retired AMNH curator of North American archaeology, believed NAGPRA gave the museum even more reason to approve scientific research because it might help identify descendant groups for repatriation. He acknowledged in an interview that it was wrong to exclude tribes from decisions about such research.
“Why Didn’t You Ask Us?”
Brenner Coltrain at the University of Utah pursued the first of two NSF grants in 2002, hoping to learn more about when farming became a central part of life for Ancestral Puebloans who lived more than 2,000 years ago on the Colorado Plateau. She began by analyzing human remains formerly buried in Arizona and Colorado and now held at Harvard’s Peabody museum, saying the work would “undoubtedly influence” the institution’s final repatriation decisions.
Brenner Coltrain did not grant an interview for this story. In an email, she told ProPublica that her work could help institutions make “informed decisions regarding repatriation” but “not ensure that repatriation will follow.”
The museum had granted Brenner Coltrain access to its collection on the condition that she share her findings with several tribes, including the Hopi, Pueblo of Acoma and Navajo Nation, according to her NSF research proposal.
Initially, the research involved having another Utah professor analyze mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, which was becoming increasingly prevalent in anthropological studies. Extracting it required pulverizing portions of bone. The genetic material, which is inherited from mothers, could help researchers learn more about trade routes, human migration and matrilineal lineages.
Brenner Coltrain and her colleague hoped to gather genetic information from more than three dozen ancestors. But they only had success with seven because the remains either were not well preserved or had lost bone mass.
The process was expensive and the results were disappointing, Brenner Coltrain said in a grant report to the NSF. It showed that the people from different ancient sites shared a common ancestry, a finding she said was “perhaps not surprising,” given what was already known about Native American genetics in the region.
But another form of destructive analysis that involved examining the bone chemistry of 80 ancestors led Brenner Coltrain to what she considered a more noteworthy finding: Corn had become a staple in the region by roughly 2,400 years ago. Her final reports did not say whether she shared this information with the tribes as Harvard requested.
Even though no repatriation happened following the first study, she successfully proposed similar research in a second NSF proposal in 2007. This time, she studied the remains of more than 140 ancestors held at the AMNH that had been excavated around the 1900s, mostly from Grand Gulch, a winding canyon within Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument. In the course of her work, she also extracted bone samples from the remains of at least two ancestors buried within Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon, according to a paper she and her co-researchers later published.
Joel Janetski, a now-retired anthropology professor at Brigham Young University who worked with Brenner Coltrain on the second of the studies, said in an interview that the researchers had followed all appropriate guidelines. They did not consult with tribes, he said, because they would have had to go around the AMNH to do so and therefore jeopardize future opportunities to research its collection.
“It would have been inappropriate,” he said.
As Brenner Coltrain’s NSF grant ended, another researcher took an interest in the Chaco Canyon ancestors whose remains she had analyzed. Stephen Plog, a University of Virginia archaeologist, obtained samples from her and sent them to a radiocarbon-dating lab for further analysis, he said.
He co-authored a paper about the research in 2010. No one raised concerns about his work, Plog said in an interview: “No reviewer, nor anyone else commented to say, ‘You know, do you think it’s really right to just do destructive analysis of human remains?’”
Next, he collaborated with researchers at Penn State, Harvard and the AMNH on a paper that again focused on the ancestors from Pueblo Bonito’s Room 33. Their work was supported by NSF funding. Using mtDNA, they showed that eight individuals buried together in the room descended from a woman laid to rest among them and that the group’s lineage spanned 300 years.
In late 2016, the team was prepared to report their findings in Nature, the leading scientific journal.
But before publication, an anthropologist who wasn’t involved in the project urged members of the team to reach out to tribes, according to interviews and emails exchanged among the researchers. It was too late to get consent for destructive analysis that had already happened. But the team could still engage with the tribes and discuss the research ahead of publication, suggested George Perry, a professor at Penn State and co-author of the paper.
Peter Whiteley, a cultural anthropologist at the AMNH, firmly opposed the idea, saying in an email to Perry and other researchers that involving tribes would result in surrendering scientific “decision-making” to them. The team should publish first and contact the tribes later, he said.
Whiteley knew the region, having spent much of his career researching and writing books about the Hopi tribe. Since the 1980s he had done this work in collaboration with tribal members or with tribal authorities’ consent, he wrote in an email to ProPublica sent via an AMNH spokesperson.
The team studying the ancestors of Pueblo Bonito’s Room 33 had asked Whiteley to contribute expertise on matrilineal cultures among the Pueblo tribes but did so only after the research had been completed. Whiteley called the proposal to engage with tribes pre-publication “naive.”
“If they had wanted Pueblo and Hopi involvement, the time to seek it was at the beginning of the research, not its conclusion,” Whiteley told ProPublica.
Despite opposition from others on the research team, Perry sent letters to Pueblo and Hopi tribal officers before the paper was published. The possibility that tribes might disapprove of the research was all the more reason to engage, he said.
In retrospect, Plog said, he understands arguments against doing the type of research on Native American human remains that he and the others pursued. But he said he participated in the belief that his findings had the potential to advance public perceptions of Native Americans by showing the culture at Chaco Canyon had rivaled other great ancient civilizations.
Koyiyumptewa, the Hopi cultural preservation office director, said he felt upset upon learning the research had been done without the tribe’s input.
“You know, why didn’t you ask us?” Koyiyumptewa said in an interview.
News headlines seized on the finding that the Ancestral Puebloans shared a matrilineal line. One read, “Girl Power,” another “Moms Rule!” But that was hardly revelatory to people like Pasqual, who trace their roots through Chaco Canyon and sustain cultures that center matrilineal ties.
“We could have told you that,” she said of the Pueblo of Acoma.
She and others say tribes have their own ways of understanding and appreciating their past.
In her youth, her father used to take her to Chaco Canyon and teach her about the people who built the great houses and how their practices extend to her and others in the present. She has since driven countless times from Acoma Pueblo to the canyon, 100 miles to the north, where she observes traces of Pueblo ancestors, their footholds embedded in the canyon walls.
“If the Pueblo people identify themselves as descendants, that should be enough,” Pasqual said.