The recent weeks of protest across the United States against anti-Black racism and police violence have revived conversations about reparations for Black Americans whose ancestors suffered from the terrors of slavery and its aftermath.
The California Assembly is poised to establish a commission to study how the state could pursue reparations, and in the U.S. Congress, H.R. 40, which would establish a commission at a national level is gaining traction.
Long considered, as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his celebrated article, “The Case for Reparations,” “a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists,” the possibility of reparations suddenly seems very real.
As Americans tussle with the idea of financial and institutional reparations, insight can be gained from other movements that have sought to redress historic injustices. One such injustice was the removal of more than 200,000 skeletons, millions of grave goods, and thousands of sacred objects—stolen from Native Americans.
For more than 12 years as a curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, I worked to implement a federal law called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which facilitates the return of ancestors and objects.
The histories of slavery and the looting of Native America are different quilts of shame and yet were woven from the same threads. Repatriation offers a poignant comparison for a reparations law that would compel institutions to confront the question of plunder and the aspiration of reconciliation.
Graverobbing Native America’s dead began with fantasies of white supremacy. In 1784, Thomas Jefferson excavated a large burial mound in Virginia, to investigate whether Native Americans were truly advanced and “civilized” enough to master such feats of engineering.
It was widely presumed that the massive structures could only have been made by a “Lost Race,” often thought to be misplaced Israelites, Phoenicians, Greeks, or others of Old World antiquity.
Such presumptions of Native American inferiority were spurred on in 1839 with Samuel George Morton’s famed book, Crania Americana, which offered highly detailed illustrations of 78 skulls to argue that humans could be categorized into five distinct races, with of course the “white man” on top.
To reaffirm such narratives, and because Native Americans were presumed to be fast fading and incapable of serving as stewards of their own heritage, in the decades that followed unknown thousands of Native American graves were plundered.
Additionally, taken from living cultures were sacred and communally-owned objects, which often interrupted religious and traditional practices. These acts served to divorce Native Americans from their own heritage and robbed many of their dignity and humanity.
Slavery was a horrific form of violence, most immediately in its physical harm. People from Africa were forced to suffer endless toil and corporeal abuse, and have their families broken apart through the sale of spouses and children. Even with the end of slavery, the horrors did not end.
Liberty continued to be stolen, as well as what little many of the descendants of slavery possessed. Lynchings, disenfranchisement, embezzlement of land through debt peonage. Segregation, educational and work opportunities denied, housing discrimination through redlining and a prejudiced banking system, police violence, and more.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates argued, Black Americans have suffered a “quiet plunder” of their lives and property. So too American museums plundered Native Americans and their cultures.
It seems no small coincidence that when looking at the history of English America, the first enslaved persons from Africa arrived not far from Jamestown in 1619 while the first Native American grave was plundered not far from Plymouth Rock in 1620.
The slavery of people from Africa and the looting of Native American ancestors and belongings are not the same. Yet, the repatriation and reparation movements are most basically about intergenerational plunder: the theft of lives, property, and cultures. Both movements are a response to a history of white supremacy, and so their moral demands are shared.
After decades of protests, NAGPRA finally became law in 1990. The process of complying with the law has often proven to be uneven, difficult, and flawed. And yet, NAGPRA has now facilitated the return of some 1.7 million grave goods, 57,000 skeletons, and 15,000 sacred and communally owned objects to tribes and lineal descendants. This process has led to new collaborations and mutually beneficial museum practices. And, for many, it has led to healing.
In his now famed essay on reparations, Coates observes that the United States can never truly repay African-Americans for what was—and still is—being taken from them.
The same seems true for Native Americans. Repatriation does not wind back the clock; we cannot unloot the dead. However, Coates adds, “What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”
This vision is already unfolding in parts of Native America, thanks in some measure to the return of stolen ancestors and property. The law will always be imperfect—repatriation and reparations can never fully repair what was broken in the past. But these attempts most basically are not about looking backward. They are about settling our accounts so that we can write a different future.
Chip Cowell is the editor-in-chief of Sapiens.org, an anthropologist and the author and editor of 12 books that address the intersection of history and politics. Among his most recent books is Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture (University of Chicago Press). Cowell has published op-eds and essays in the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and Indian Country Today.