KJZZ is a service of Rio Salado College,
and Maricopa Community Colleges

Copyright © 2024 KJZZ/Rio Salado College/MCCCD
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Investigation shows ASU is one of the worst at returning Indigenous remains to tribes

The School of Human Evolution and Social Change is the anthropological and archaeological research arm of Arizona State University. The school’s collections include Indigenous human remains and artifacts subject to repatriation under NAGPRA.
Chad Bradley/Cronkite News and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at ASU
The School of Human Evolution and Social Change is the anthropological and archaeological research arm of Arizona State University. The school’s collections include Indigenous human remains and artifacts subject to repatriation under NAGPRA.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires American institutions to return to their tribes the remains of indigenous people and artifacts that were dug up, stored and sometimes displayed in museums around the country. But, it’s a process that’s easier said than done, as our next guest found.

Aspen Ford is one of a group of student journalists at the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication who worked on a series of stories about NAGPRA and how well some of Arizona’s biggest institutions are doing in returning their archives of human remains. They found ASU has made only 2% of its indigenous remains available for tribes, one of the lowest rates in the country.

The Show spoke with Ford more about it.

Aspen Ford
Doug Hoke
Aspen Ford

Full conversation

ASPEN FORD: NAGPRA actually came out over 30 years ago. It came out in 1990, and it basically mandated that American institutions repatriate or return the Native American remains and funerary objects that they have in their collections. So this came about after years and years of people excavating Native American gravesites and taking the remains to be stored at boxes. Some were studied.

And so this law kind of mandated people change the way that they look at archeology and return the ancestors back to their tribes. People were still displaying artifacts and other things in their museums up until very recently. Actually, earlier this year, NAGPRA updated its guidelines and mandated that museums stop putting Native American artifacts on display.

LAUREN GILGER: So these efforts to return and repatriate these remains are relatively new. So institutions around the country are supposed to be doing that, right? And you’re looking at two major institutions here in Arizona: ASU and UA here to see how their progress has been in repatriating these remains. What did you find?

FORD: So I mainly investigated ASU, but I also was involved with UA to an extent at the beginning of our research. Our first interview was with the UA, the Arizona State Museum, which is located on its campus.

And we met with several people all working on NAGPRA. There were three, and they were very open with us, very happy to tell us all the details of their collections. They are re-inventorying everything. They’re turning it digital. They really showed us how extensive this process can be, of repatriation.

It takes a lot of work to track down things. Often they get remains that aren’t identified in any manner. People didn’t take the best notes when they were excavating, and, they just don’t know where these remains came from.

Another thing they said is sometimes amateur archeologists would come and actually just drop off a whole collection of remains and not say anything. It was passed down from a grandfather who had passed away or something like that, and they didn’t have any use for them. They didn’t know what to do with them. And so they were given to Arizona State Museum.

So they’ve made bigger efforts to repatriate. And that shows in their notices of inventory completion, which all institutions are required to submit to the National Park Service, which oversees NAGPRA.

And then we have ASU, which, we had the records from the NPS stating that ASU had only repatriated less than 2% of all its human remains and artifacts. And then everything changed when we got the (Freedom of Information Act) documents from the National Park Service, which showed us their grant applications for 2019 and 2023. And it also showed us progress reports for the years after 2019.

GILGER: What did they say?

FORD: There was a few things that said. ASU did try to hire its first full time staff position for repatriation in 2019, but this person was not hired until 2022.

And we found through the application that it was kind of a bureaucratic delay, and that the contracting office did not approve the position to be funded because they were unfamiliar with NAGPRA and why it should be funded in the first place. And then the pandemic came along and derailed the process.

It also stated that the archeology department acknowledged that the records that they had given to NPS were likely inaccurate, and they actually held more remains and artifacts than they previously thought.

ASU also disclosed that it had lost track of some of the Native American remains. Some were stored in old boxes and bags that were ripping. There was even a wastewater flood that entered one of the collections rooms and flooded the library. They said that no human remains were damaged in this flood, but there was still a flood.

And so that kind of raised questions to ask, like how are they taking care of these remains and objects all these years? It just kind of showed us the inner workings of repatriation at ASU that we had no other way to find.

GILGER: So what did ASU have to say about what you found here?

FORD: So we reached out to several people at ASU, several people working at the repository at the archeology department, and we even reached out to the VP on tribal relations, and they all declined an interview with us. So we were not able to really get anything from them.

They did, however, send us a kind of like a press release that stated their goals and how they are now working with tribes and how they are planning to start a new master’s program just for repatriation.

And so the day that they sent us that, they also published a press release on their article with the same information that they gave us. And unfortunately, we were never, never able to get an interview.

GILGER: So I know you grew up in a town that’s home to two Cherokee tribes. And you wrote about this. And as part of this project, you and a few of the other students who are indigenous wrote about covering this as indigenous people. Did you know about NAGPRA growing up in your community?

FORD: No, I didn’t. so I’m from Tahlequah, Oklahoma. It’s home to the Cherokee Nation and also the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, which I am a part of the latter. No, I had no idea. I only found out about it a couple of years ago through the Indigenous Journalists Association, which I’m a member of.

Each year at their conferences, they hold panels talking about repatriation and how to report on that. And then about a year ago, ProPublica really shined a light on the issue with their investigation, looking at it at a national level.

Because when you first hear of what it is, sometimes you don’t know, like the grim backstory behind it. You just hear like, “Oh, how did these museums get all these human remains?” It’s kind of like a no-brainer to a lot of people nowadays. Like yeah, you should give the remains back to the tribes.

But when you start to learn about the history of how Native American ancestors were treated, it’s more in an ethical dilemma that you think about, and it shines light on the the ethics of archeological research and excavations back in the day.

GILGER: So I want to ask you lastly about goals in this. As a journalist, obviously, we’re not supposed to be personally invested in our stories, but this one probably hits home for you. Do you want more kids growing up today in places like where you’re from to be aware of this, to know and institutions to change because people are aware?

FORD: That’s a really good question. I think it would be really important for indigenous youth, indigenous workers, indigenous journalists to learn about this issue because it’s something that's hard. It’s hard to learn about. And not that it’s hard to understand, but it’s difficult to grasp the true history of what happened. And even with this generations’ archeologists and museum curators, they are way more pro-repatriation than they’ve ever been before.

I think more awareness is key. And like I said, it is a really hard issue to talk about. It’s grim. It’s depressing even. But I think that we should all know about this part of American history that took place that not a lot of people know about.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text is edited for length and clarity, and may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.
Related Content