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Repatriation Options Explored

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – There are at least three options to repatriating American Indian remains now stored in boxes in museums and federal agencies, said the manager of a National Park Service program.

Retired federal judge and law professor Sherry Hutt told an audience in training at the University of South Carolina that federal agencies have “a potential of 200,000 Native American humans remains” to be claimed for repatriation.

Some have been identified, she said, but the rest are “culturally unidentifiable.” She asked the audience, “Who are these people?” They are the remains of indigenous peoples taken from burials even before 1990 when the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act became law.

She explained that

NAGPRA regulations provide ways for these remains to be repatriated.

Hutt said NAGPRA is sometimes misinterpreted as a law only for federally recognized tribes to claim and handle the remains for reburial.

Currently, she said, a state-recognized tribe could ask a federal tribe for help. The federally recognized tribe can claim the remains and return them to the tribe.

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Another way is for a state tribe to go to NAGPRA’s review committee and ask it to make recommendations to the Secretary of the Interior Department concerning the repatriation of their ancestors’ remains.

“You say the state of South Carolina has these individuals. We are a state-recognized tribe. We agree [with the state] that this is our aboriginal territory, and we are the descendants of these people. We have a shared identity. But because we are not federally recognized, we don’t have otherwise a chance under the law. Therefore these individuals are falsely identified under the law merely by status, not by fact. This is how you work it through NAGPRA,” she said.

Hutt said once Interior agrees with NAGPRA’s recommendations, it will notify the tribe. Then NAGPRA will publish the tribe’s intentions. If no one else comes forth to claim the remains within 30 days, then the tribe can go ahead with their plans, she said.

The third way is to take a claim to court. “You say we are a people that the court recognizes. These are our people here in your boxes, and we are making a claim as their descendants,” Hutt said. Going through the courts can be difficult but can be done, Hutt agreed.

The Waccamaw Tribe, which lives near Myrtle Beach, S.C., had some 60 sets of ancestral bones taken from the area and wants them back, but since they are not a federal tribe, they have difficulties in getting them from the state.

Hutt told Chief Harold Hatcher, the Waccamaw leader, “Door No. 2 is your best option.” She said new NAGPRA regulations are being written, which may provide a way for the Waccamaws to get their ancestors returned without having to go to a federal tribe or to a NAGPRA review committee.

South Carolina has 600 sets of bones in storage. Hutt urged the trainees to document counties with tribal groups, so that the bones known to have been dug up there can be returned to those groups for reburial.

Hutt explained that grave sites are protected. No one is allowed to dig up graves, even if one purchases land with an American Indian burial ground. When you buy land, you don’t buy the right to dig, she explained. “You don’t own the human remains.” Only the descendants can ask for a grave to be disturbed, she said.