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Thousands of Native American remains in Ohio could finally be laid to rest under a provision that has passed the state House, the start of a process that tribal members have waited on for decades.
The Ohio History Connection, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve Ohio history, currently has over 7,100 ancestral remains and funerary objects like pieces of clothing or jewelry in its possession that should have been returned under a loosely followed federal law in the 1990s, a ProPublica investigation found as part of a look into U.S. museums and universities still holding Native American remains.
The organization has the third-largest amount of these remains in the country, following the University of California at Berkeley and the Illinois State Museum.
UC Berkeley holds a collection of around 10,000 Indigenous human remains and burial objects, the largest number in the US, according to a 2020 state audit.
The language in the state’s operating budget paves the way for the nonprofit to use any land it owns — currently about 6 acres set aside for an intertribal burial ground — to bury the remains, The Columbus Dispatch reported.
ABC News reports the organization can’t use the land to bury the remains until it’s designated a burial ground by the Legislature.
The amendment also requires that Ohio History Connection work with “federally recognized Indian tribal governments” on the selection and use of those sites.
The nonprofit said it has already been working for about 15 years with tribal partners on how to best care for the remains, though repatriation talks did not start until around 2016, the Dispatch reported.
“We believe very strongly their spirit never rests until they are reconnected with Mother Earth,” Glenna Wallace, chief of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, told the Dispatch. Wallace’s ancestors lived in Ohio before they were forced out in the early 1800s.
ABC News reports before the remains can be reconnected, the provision must make it through the Ohio Senate’s consideration of the budget, which lawmakers must pass by June 30.
Native Americans graves long have been ravaged and disrespected by “White explorers”
According to Scientific American, for centuries White explorers and settlers in the Americas dug up the graves of indigenous people, looting sacred artifacts and used the remains for studies that promoted white superiority.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed in 1990 to enable tribes to protect and recover their heritage, and it has succeeded in reuniting many items from federally funded institutions with their rightful custodians. But when remains cannot be culturally linked to a modern tribe—or no tribe claims them—scientists may conduct research without getting approval from tribes to do so.
Giving Native peoples a voice in the study of their heritage is the only way to heal the wounds of the past—and build the trust needed to move forward together with scientists toward a fuller understanding of the human story.