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A Fictional Voice in the Struggle for Repatriation of Cultural Artifacts and Human Remains

In December of 2023, Archaeology Southwest’s (ASW) Archaeology Cafe featured Ashleigh Thompson, a member of the Red Lake Ojibwe Nation and ASW’s Director of Tribal Collaboration in Research and Education. “More than Subsistence: How Anishinaabe Traditional Foodways Nourish Culture, Kinship, and Community Wellbeing” offered a glimpse into her research regarding traditional foodways as a means of preserving cultural knowledge on behalf of the Red Lake Ojibwe Nation today and for future generations.

It was a fascinating presentation, and during the question-and-answer segment, she mentioned Angeline Boulley, a Chippewa author whose second young adult novel, Warrior Girl Unearthed, was recently released. As an avid reader, I immediately sought out her books, both of which are set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in and around the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa Nation. While Boulley’s books are categorized as young adult fiction, it is only because the main characters are young adults. The stories will appeal to all ages.

While her first book, The Firekeeper’s Daughter, offers insights into her main character’s  struggle for ancestral identity and the drug epidemic among Native Americans, it is the second book, Warrior Girl Unearthed, that provides readers with insights into the anthropological issue of repatriation of Native American human remains, funerary objects, and sacred artifacts. The main character, Perry Firekeeper-Birch, who has never taken school and learning seriously, is planning for what she calls her “Summer of Slack” while her twin sister is attending an orientation for summer interns in tribal programs. No toss-up for her between continued learning or daily fishing on Sugar Island, the home of her cultural ancestors. However, it’s Perry’s bad luck that her penchant for living life at “full throttle” and a bear cub crossing the road lead to wrecking the Jeep her Aunt Daunis Firekeeper (the main character in the first book) gave to the twins. Now, Perry will have to sign up for the internship program in order to pay for the repairs.

Even though she is less than enthusiastic about spending her summer engaged in cultural learning, her commitment to her identity and to her people’s cultural practices is part of her daily routine. For example, on her way to her first assignment at the Sugar Island Cultural Learning Center, she gives thanks to Creator for the river before releasing semaa (tobacco) into it from the ferry between Sugar Island and Saute Ste. Marie. And before her first meeting with her mentor, she runs out to find a cedar bush, to which she whispers a prayer and offers semaa before breaking off two flat sprigs and slipping them into her sneakers with a prayer for protection and strength.

In her first exploration of the museum without the benefit of a tour guide, she sees a black ash basket on display and recognizes her Great Grandmother’s unique weaving technique. When she reaches for it to confirm it is her ancestor’s work, a voice stops her. Cooper Turtle, the museum director, appears, introduces himself and tells her, “Everything is connected.... The past. The future. The beginning and ending. Answers are there even before the question....” His cryptic message leaves her wanting a different assignment.

Returning to the museum the following week, Cooper takes her to a meeting at Mackinac State College where she is introduced to the acronym NAGPRA about which she quickly gains a basic understanding. On their way to view the archives, Cooper offers her cedar oil for protection and tells her they will see funerary and sacred objects, as well as human remains. He explains that her project with him will be to help inventory the collections held by the college and initiate the return of their ancestors to the tribe. In the archives, Perry is horrified that among the “collection” are the bones and skulls of her ancestors. Specifically, she is shown  the bones of a single individual known as Warrior Girl, whose remains have been “disarticulated” and thoughtlessly stored in boxes organized by body parts. She is further horrified at how disrespectfully the curator handles the remains, but it is the AFO (associated funerary object) that draws her to the ancestor: a knife with an eight-inch flint blade that had been lashed to a deer antler handle. When she is allowed to hold it in her gloved hand, she is tempted to steal it and run, but she hands it back to the curator knowing that she really does not want to steal the knife—she wants to steal Warrior Girl.

After this, she is taken to visit a haphazard collection of boxes which will also be part of the repatriation project. In one box, she finds a black ash basket which contains almond-shaped seeds—some variety of squash. When she slips some of them into her pocket, she is unaware that this action will lead her down a dangerous path—a path that begins with her pledge to Cooper to bring the Warrior Girl, Ogichidaakwezans, back to her people.

Perry’s impatience sends her headlong into situations that place others besides herself in danger. When she discovers a large collection hidden by a looter in a silo on Sugar Island, she enlists her small intern group and others (whom she believes are sympathetic) to help retrieve it before the looter ships it off to his buyer. It’s a race against time, and no one is safe. Hers is a gripping story through which readers learn the sad reality of Indigenous remains, funerary objects, and cultural items which have been collected by museums for archaeological and anthropological research and by looters for personal profit. It is a history we should all know.

Through my association with Archaeology Southwest as well as participating in archaeological activities, I am aware that, in spite of the law requiring repatriation, it is not happening as one would expect. To understand it more fully, I set out to learn more about the current state of NAGPRA (and associated laws).

I found that ProPublica, an “independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force,” had, in January of 2023, launched the “Repatriation Project: America’s Biggest Museums Fail to Return Native American Human Remains.” The website features an interactive component in which viewers can search for institutions holding Native American remains and tribes seeking to reclaim them. I also learned that sometimes a part of an institution’s collection has not been made available to tribes. NAGPRA specifies:

... when an institution establishes a connection between tribes and remains, it must publish a list of the tribes eligible to make a repatriation claim. The remains are then made available for return to the tribe(s). Once a tribal claim is made, physical transfer may occur.

The problem is that while many remains have been physically returned to tribes, data regarding these transactions is lacking since institutions were not required to report when these transfers occurred. This lack of clarity, in my opinion, is an invitation to the institutions to be less than forthcoming in making the human remains available to their Native American descendants.

On top of that, a loophole in the law allowed museums and agencies to withhold repatriation by claiming that those remains were “culturally unidentifiable” and had no connection to present-day Indigenous communities who might be seeking their return. By using that excuse, they can continue to conduct destructive scientific studies on those remains without consent.

That said, the Arizona State Museum (ASM) in Tucson was listed in January of 2023 as #11 on the list of museums and agencies holding such remains. However, their Repatriation Office more recently has reported that they manage “one of the most active repatriation programs in the country, complying with federal law and administering the statutes pertaining to human remains and associated objects encountered on state and private land in Arizona. All remaining individuals and their belongings in ASM’s care have been reported to National NAGPRA and to potentially culturally affiliated tribes.” ASM, the Repatriation Office asserts, is working actively in consultation with tribal communities “to prepare remaining individuals and cultural items for transfer at a pace that is manageable for the receiving tribes.”

Additional good news, however, is that ProPublica’s Repatriation Project had a positive impact on progress. Less than a year after their first investigation appeared online, in December of 2023, they reported that there has been “more activity leading to the return of ancestral remains to tribal nations than any other year since 1990” when NAGPRA was passed into law. Even so, there is much more to be done.

To that end, newly revised regulations relative the NAGPRA will go into effect this year which will require agencies and museums to defer to native communities’ customs, traditions, and histories, and the category of “culturally unidentifiable” will be eliminated as a final determination. If an accurate determination cannot be made, the museum must report the details in the Federal Register, something never required before. Additionally, institutions will have five years to update their current inventories and publish them in the Federal Register. Finally, tribal consent will be required before any institution can conduct research on the remains.

There is progress, but I fear we still have a long way to go to properly honor our Native American brothers and sisters as they seek to bring their ancestors home. While Perry Firekeeper-Birch, our young heroine in Warrior Girl Unearthed, failed to bring the warrior girl’s remains home, her spirit joined her from time to time to guide Perry’s thinking when things got rough. I’m hoping Angeline Boulley has another adventure for Perry in the works; her elevation to modern Warrior Girl surely means she will not rest until her ancestors have come home to Sugar Island where they belong.