Illinois passes updated law to repatriate Native American remains after years of neglect
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill this month intended to improve the process of returning native remains and cultural artifacts to their nations of origin.
It’s part of a yearslong, statewide effort to improve the state’s poor track record with repatriation.
According to ProPublica’s “The Repatriation Project,” Illinois has the country’s second-largest collection of unrepatriated Native American remains, more than 30 years after the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed to facilitate returns.
Many of these remains, including those found at Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville, belong to the Osage Nation, which was forced out of the state in the 19th century.
“Illinois is finally agreeing to respect the already established sovereignty of these tribes,” said Sarah O’Donnell, NAGPRA coordinator for the Osage Nation’s historic preservation office. “We finally will have an opportunity to, you know, hold the State of Illinois to their word here and make sure that there is a change.”
The bill amends the state’s existing Human Remains Protection Act, which was written without tribal consultation. It adds a number of measures to facilitate better communication between Illinois and tribal nations, including a requirement for institutions to properly notify and consult tribes about repatriation.
Previous iterations of the state law did not require institutions to notify tribal nations when ancestral remains were inadvertently discovered in the state, nor did they define the consultation process. As a result, O’Donnell said many institutions sent public notices to nations but did not initiate formal conversations about returning remains.
O’Donnell said the law is a step in the right direction, but the state’s museums and universities will need to prove their commitment to the law by looking for tribal input at every stage of the process.
“In terms of the overarching history of how the State of Illinois has treated tribes and treated their cultural resources ... I think we still need to just see how this plays out,” she said.
Illinois museums have historically been more concerned with building collections and accolades than repatriation, O’Donnell said.
“In past generations of archaeologists, historians and those folks who were writing the history and informing decisions about burial laws … it was advantageous to remove modern tribes’ connection to their cultural resources,” she said.
At the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Illinois State Museum, new leadership has played a significant role in making sure this changed. O’Donnell said the museum’s late director, Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, was one of the first people from Illinois to ask tribal nations for input on updating repatriation law.
Now, Logan Pappenfort, the curator of anthropology at the Illinois State Museum’s Dickson Mounds branch, has taken a leading role in working with tribal nations on repatriation.
“It's a long process, but it's one that is good and frankly, needs to be done and has been too long coming,” said Pappenfort, who is also a member of the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma, which was removed from Illinois in 1818.
With more than 7,000 remains held by the museum and only 2% made available for return, Pappenfort said it will take awhile for the museum to fully complete its repatriation efforts.
“We are still planning on moving forward with repatriation of all the ancestors and objects that need to return to descendant communities, and we are committed to making that happen in as expedient of a way as we can,” he said.
For O’Donnell, Pappenfort’s work is encouraging.
“We need collaboration. We need open, transparent communication,” she said. “As long as those things continue to be true for this new generation of folks who are now in positions within the State of Illinois government and institutions, I think we're on a better path,” she said.