10 takeaways from our investigation into museum collections of Native American remains from CT

The remains of at least 204 Native ancestors taken from Connecticut still sit in museums more than three decades after Congress passed a law requiring them to return such remains.

That finding comes from a three part investigation by Hearst Connecticut Media Group into how museums in Connecticut have responded to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

Native remains and burial belongings made their way into institutions one of two ways. Some were unearthed accidentally during construction or farming. Others were removed on purpose by researchers, government officials, collectors and curiosity seekers.

Museums gathered the remains from a variety of sources to display publicly or use in research that was often racist.

“We acknowledge that this aspect of the museum’s legacy is tragic,” said David Skelly, director of Yale’s Peabody Museum, which holds most of the unreturned remains from Connecticut and plans to step up efforts to repatriate them.

Here’s what the Hearst Connecticut Media investigation found:

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1. Hundreds of thousands of Native remains wound up in museums across the country. Only about half have been returned.

For hundreds of years, the remains of tens of thousands of Native Americans have been removed from cemeteries and burial mounds.

At least 200,000 came to reside in museums and universities nationwide.

At least half of those remains have not yet been returned. They are generally in museum storage and no longer on public display.

About 204 of the Native remains that still sit on museum shelves were from Connecticut.

2. Most Native remains from Connecticut that haven’t been returned are at Yale.

Almost 90 percent of unreturned remains from Connecticut are at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven.

Yale has returned the remains of about 400 Native ancestors — about 45 percent of the remains it has held in its collection, according to federal data.

But the university’s Peabody Museum still holds remains of nearly 500 ancestors from sites nationwide, all categorized as culturally unidentifiable.

That includes 179 ancestors taken from sites in Connecticut. 

Most came to the university after being unearthed accidentally, Yale said. Others were donated by collectors or excavated from burial sites by the university, federal records show.

“It is lamentable that the human remains held by the Peabody were ever displaced at all, and we urge for their swift return to their homes,” Mara Gutierrez and Truman Pipestem, co-chairs of the Native and Indigenous Student Association at Yale, said in a statement.

3. The rest are at a handful of institutions in Chicago and across the Northeast.

Yale has more ancestors from Connecticut sites than any other museum or university by a wide margin. But at least 27 ancestors from Connecticut await repatriation at other institutions.

Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology has remains of seven ancestors from Connecticut.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York has six ancestors from sites in Connecticut between 1874 and 1938.

The Wesleyan University Archaeology Laboratory still has seven ancestors from Connecticut, along with eight Native ancestors of unknown provenance, said spokesman Steven Scarpa.

Another four ancestors from Connecticut are at the Springfield Science Museum.

There is one Connecticut ancestor each at: the Augusta Museum of History in Georgia; the Field Museum in Chicago; and a collection of skulls at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology that was once used in now-debunked research to show supposed differences between the sizes of different races’ brains.

4. Five institutions have returned all the Connecticut remains in their collections.

Five museums have returned all the ancestors from Connecticut that were in their collections, according to records and museum officials. They are the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport; the Bruce Museum, in Greenwich; the Spratt-Mead Museum at Bridgton Academy in Maine; and Harvard University’s Warren Anatomical Museum and the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology at Phillips Academy, both in Massachusetts.

In 2019, the Bruce Museum realized that it hadn’t fully complied with federal law. By the end of 2020, the museum had returned all the remains to tribal nations — including 14 ancestors from Connecticut, far more than any other institution has returned from the state.

“It's not about us,” said Timothy Walsh, the museum’s collection manager. “Think of how the tribes feel when they know that they have ancestors in these institutions.”

5. There are probably more remains that haven’t been repatriated than we know.

Experts say data museums report to the government is probably incomplete. That’s because only museums receiving federal funds report data, and there have been claims museums and government officials update records slowly.

Hearst Connecticut Media looked at data museums had reported to the federal government as of late January. Reporters then updated that data after surveying museums, speaking with experts and reviewing other public records.

But some remains in Connecticut don’t appear in the federal data at all.

The University of Connecticut, which houses the Office of State Archaeology, said it has Native remains from Connecticut and is consulting with tribes about repatriation. The university said those fall under a state law, rather than NAGPRA.

UConn declined to say how many remains it has or provide other details.

6. Museum collections have a long, often racist, history.

The Native remains still in museums are generally kept in storage and are no longer displayed publicly. But in the past, they were often featured in museum displays and used as objects of study in now discredited and racist pseudoscience.

“They were engaged in skull science, basically phrenology,” said Jason Mancini, executive director of Connecticut Humanities and former head of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center.

Samuel George Morton, a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, was infamous for collecting skulls for this purpose. His skull collection, now housed in the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, was gathered to prove a definitive racial hierarchy.

The Morton Collection, as it’s called now, includes the remains of one Native ancestor from Connecticut, identified in university records as Quinnipiac — a tribe that lived in and around what is now New Haven county.

“There does not appear to be a relationship of shared group identity that can be reasonably traced between the Quinnipiac ancestral human remains and present-day federally-recognized tribe(s),” a spokeswoman for the Penn Museum said in a statement.

7. Almost as soon as Europeans got to what is now America, they started to dig up Native graves. 

Europeans and their descendents have been digging up the remains of Indigenous people since colonization.

Both English and Spanish colonizers dug up graves in search of wealth and resources. As time went on, graves were looted by hobbyist collectors and archeologists. Sometimes this occurred on reservations. Other times, it occurred in places known to be Indigenous grave sites.

Some of these digs were directly funded by museums and other institutions. Many of the ancestral remains and burial belongings that were unearthed ended up in museum collections, But many more entered the private market.

There’s no hard data on how many Native remains are still in private collections that are not subject to federal repatriation laws.

8. A 1990 law requires museums that receive federal funds to inventory and return Native remains.

NAGPRA requires institutions like museums and universities that receive federal funds to return remains of Native ancestors and burial belongings — personal items and cultural or religious objects the individual was buried with — in their collections.

Museums were supposed to file draft inventories of remains in their collections with federal officials. Then, they were supposed to invite federally-recognized tribes to help establish ancestors' “cultural affiliation” — a link with a tribe based on shared geography, culture, biology or other factors. Only after that process could the ancestors be repatriated.

If the museum couldn’t establish a cultural affiliation — for example, if there were no records of where the remains came from — they could label the remains “culturally unidentifiable” and return them using a different process.

In practice, advocates and experts say many institutions filed draft inventories, sent letters to tribes and considered the process done if they did not hear back — labeling remains “culturally unidentifiable” and keeping them until a tribe requests consultation and proves affiliation.

This effectively left many remains in limbo. A 2009 study estimated up to 80 percent of “unidentifiable” remains “could be reasonably identified.”

9. New federal regulations could speed up the often stalled repatriation process.

New regulations set to be published later this year are expected to remove the “culturally unidentifiable” label, impose tight deadlines for repatriation and promote affiliating remains and burial belongings with tribes based on a geographic connection.

Experts and advocates hope the new regulations will spur institutions to finally repatriate the tens of thousands of Native remains that are still in their collections, more than 30 years after NAGPRA became law.

Still, some worry institutions will find loopholes.

Melanie O’Brien, the National Park Service’s NAGPRA program manager, acknowledged that some of the changes are meant to reinforce what institutions could already be doing under the existing rules.

For example, the current regulations already allow institutions to make an affiliation based on geography, according to O’Brien. But many have not.

“Despite knowing where human remains were removed from and knowing which Indian tribes occupied those locations, the museums and federal agencies haven't determined cultural affiliation with that information,” she said.

10. Some museums are also taking steps to return more ancestors.

Yale said it’s consulting with over a dozen tribes on repatriations, which it hopes to increase this year.

Museum officials also said they will expand the repatriation team from one staff member to three beginning July 1. One focus will be to reach out to Connecticut tribes without federal recognition, something Yale officials acknowledged they have not yet done.

Yale Peabody spokesperson Christopher Renton said the museum is reassessing remains it labeled as culturally unidentifiable by consulting with tribes and reexamining its records. Renton also said the university has dedicated more funds to assist tribes with consultation and repatriation, which can involve travel and other expenses.

In 2011, Wesleyan moved the remains that are still in its collection to a “quiet, highly restricted” area of campus “set aside in consultation with tribes,” spokesman Steven Scarpa said.

The university has initiated several consultations with tribes about returning the remains, most recently in 2022, and anticipates more this year, according to Scarpa.

“Wesleyan's position is that these ancestors should be returned to their relatives, so we are actively working with tribes to facilitate that reunion,” Scarpa said.

The Augusta Museum said it reached out to five federally-recognized tribes with connections to Connecticut in September 2022. The museum has not yet contacted the Mohegan Tribe — one of the two federally recognized tribes in Connecticut — but plans to, said Executive Director Nancy J. Glaser.

“We have yet to hear back from the groups contacted regarding consultation, but we plan to continue to reach out to them,” Glaser said.