Temple, prioritize the return of Indigenous ancestors

A student urges the university to prioritize the return of Indigenous ancestors in their possession to the rightful communities.


November is National Native American Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the rich and vibrant culture and history of Indigenous populations across the United States.

It has been hundreds of years since the U.S. began westward expansion and the subsequent genocide, forced relocation, cultural assimilation and unjust treatment of Native Americans, but the effects still permeate Indigenous communities today. 

Since the 1800s, archaeologists and museum collectors have dug up and looted burial sites for Indigenous remains, funerary objects and cultural items. This was once a common practice that has since become an ethical debate and a continuous source of hurt for Indigenous populations. 

Despite the passing of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990, a federal law that required the return of these items to Indigenous tribes and descendants, the remains of more than 110,000 Indigenous ancestors are still held by museums, universities and federal agencies. More than 100 are held in Temple’s Department of Anthropology, ProPublica reported in January. 

Temple should make it a priority to acknowledge the harm of possessing these ancestors and fulfill their responsibility to return these items to the rightful Indigenous communities.

Temple’s Department of Anthropology currently holds 116 Indigenous remains, with only seven percent of their collection having been made available for return, ProPublica reported. 

These 116 Indigenous ancestors were excavated and removed from their burial places by archaeologists, largely in the 1960s, said Leslie Reeder-Myers, an anthropology professor and the director of Temple’s Anthropology Laboratory and Museum. 

“They were removed at a time when archaeology operated very differently, and that was considered by archaeologists to be completely fine, even though it was not considered to be okay by the Indigenous descendants of the people who were removed,” Reeder-Myers said.

Until the 20th century, archeologists, anthropologists and collectors took Native remains and sacred objects during expeditions on tribal lands, The Associated Press reported

Some remains were sought after for scientific purposes, and bodies were collected by government agencies after battles with tribes. Museums also wanted these items to establish collections, and academic institutions used them as teaching tools.

Temple’s collection of Indigenous ancestors are not on display or used for educational purposes or analysis. 

“We do not use them to teach, we do not use them for analysis, research, anything,” Reeder-Myers said. “They are left alone for the time being while we work towards repatriation.”

Other Philadelphia institutions also possess Indigenous remains, including the Wagner Free Institute of Science, University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Mütter Museum.

Repatriation is the process in which human remains and certain types of cultural items are returned to lineal descendants, Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations, according to the National Museum of the American Indian.

Temple’s Department of Anthropology has only completed the repatriation of ancestors from two different locations to the rightful tribal groups, but the university says they are dedicated to completing the process. 

“Temple University and the College of Liberal Arts (CLA) are committed to the assiduous repatriation of ancestral remains to their descendants and tribal nations,” the university wrote in a statement to The Temple News. “Over the next two years, Richard Deeg, dean of CLA, has pledged to invest considerably in this process as he recognizes that there is both a legal and moral obligation to return ancestors.”

Federal land management agencies estimate more than one-third of Native American sites on federally protected property have been emptied, many of which were grave sites, The Washington Post reported.

Temple and other Philadelphia institutions must prioritize the return of these materials, as it’s a long overdue opportunity to show respect and allow closure for Indigenous communities.

The possession and lack of repatriations of these remains is appalling, said Dennis Coker, Principal Chief of the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware, a state-recognized American Indian tribal nation located in Kent County, Delaware.

“Retaining that cultural material and excavating it and removing it for research purposes was just totally uncalled for, out of line and disrespectful,” Coker said. “Many of our native traditionals have the view that that cultural material needs to be left in the ground, that’s where it was placed. It should not be removed.”

Many universities are now grappling with how to complete this process in a way that is efficient and respectful to Indigenous communities. 

The repatriation process involves extensive record-sifting and communication with possible descendants and tribes, but because these items were often stolen and treated without care, many ancestors are unable to be easily identified and returned. 

While reparation can be a tedious and multifaceted process, it’s something that must be done in fairness and out of respect for the Indigenous people who have, for years, suffered the effects of colonization and assimilation.

“It’s a legacy of colonialism that is now our responsibility to address even if it weren’t directly involved in the choices that brought these people to Temple,” Reeder-Myers said. 

It’s been more than 30 years since the passing of NAGPRA, but 52 percent of the nearly 209,000 Native American human remains have still not been returned. The process poses many challenges, like resource constraints, competing priorities and limitations with data that have prevented more significant progress, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. 

“It’s just totally unacceptable that Native Americans seem to be the focus of all of those collections,” Coker said. “Even when required by law to return that material, that law is often ignored, so there is a lot of work to do.”

Temple’s Department of Anthropology is renovating a space to improve security and privacy for the Indigenous ancestors, and they are actively working with Bernstein & Associates, a NAGPRA consultant, to expedite the repatriation and ensure transparency, according to a statement from the department.

While Temple is taking steps in the right direction, they should be transparent about their process and consistently held accountable by faculty and students to ensure they are fulfilling their moral and legal obligations. Establishing a dialogue with involved faculty and administration can develop unanimous efforts toward achieving repatriation.

Students are not responsible for Temple returning these items, but they can educate themselves, volunteer, seek information from tribes and strive to be welcoming of new information and sensitive feelings from the Indigenous community to support the process. 

Even though Philadelphia was once home to a plethora of Native American tribes, there are currently no federally recognized Indian tribes in Pennsylvania. However, more than 12,000 American Indians live in the state, according to the 2022 U.S. Census.

The federally recognized tribes that were in Philadelphia are the Delaware Nation, Delaware Tribe of Indians and the Stockbridge-Munsee Community, Reeder-Myers said. All three tribes are still active today. 

“I think it would be amazing for students to learn more about and learn ways to advocate and one really good way to do that is to look for the resources coming from the tribes themselves,” Reeder-Myers said.

The Global Citizen, an action platform dedicated to achieving equality and ending poverty, provides a list of ways to take action and support Native American communities during Native American Heritage Month and beyond.

Students can support IPD Philly, a community network supporting Native American social justice, and the Native American House Alliance, a non-profit promoting the general welfare of Native Americans in the Philadelphia area.

They can also attend local events and volunteer for these organizations, and be receptive to respecting cultural practices and learning about Indigenous experiences and feelings. 

Engaging and advocating for local tribal members and organizations is a way for people to be helpful, said Cornelia Dimalanta, a descendant of the Lumbee Tribe and president of the Native American House Alliance.

“It’s becoming proven that there are a lot of tribal members here,” Dimalanta said. “They may all be from different tribes, but we’re here, and we need a voice.”

Actively engaging with Indigenous communities, promoting cultural awareness and acknowledging the problematic past of the university are simple ways to support the Native population in Pennsylvania. 

Institutions must work proactively to make amends after years of mishandling Indigenous ancestors, and students can use their voices to advocate for the completion.

The cruel treatment of Indigenous people has been validated by the possession of these stolen ancestors, and these communities deserve the remains returned home so they can be appreciated and buried with dignity. 

Completing the return process would bring a much-needed sense of closure to Indigenous communities, Coker said. 

“For the extended families of these peoples, it’s the right thing to do, and when all else fails, you do the right thing,” Coker said. “I think that’s the attitude for most of Indian country. At least they know that the remains of those loved ones are with them, to a certain extent.” 

Indigenous populations deserve to be reunited with what is rightfully theirs, and Temple has an obligation to make amends for the role they played in disrespecting ancestors and their families through their possession of cherished cultural items. 

The repatriation process can be difficult, but there is no excuse for it not to be completed in a timely, respectful and collaborative manner. Temple must work actively to rectify the wrongs of the past and foster an environment where the dignity and cultural heritage of all communities are acknowledged and honored.

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