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Illinois spent decades refusing to repatriate Native American burial remains

Logan Pappenfort looking at objects in display case
Sky Hopinka for ProPublica
Logan Pappenfort, a member of the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma and interim director at the Dickson Mounds Museum, is part of a group of people who have started to confront the history of the museum, including its lack of repatriations.

Illinois’ state museum system holds more than 7,000 burial remains taken from Native American mounds and other sites. Yet, despite a 1990 federal law that required museums start returning remains, Illinois did “close to nothing” for more than 20 years, according to a new report by ProPublica.

The report, published last month, is part of the news organization’s Repatriation Project, which found that around half of the 210,000 Native American remains in the possession of museums have yet to be returned. The reporting project’s introduction noted, "Tribes have struggled to reclaim them in part because of a lack of federal funding for repatriation and because institutions face little to no consequences for violating the law or dragging their feet."

But there are signs that this pattern is changing, said ProPublica reporter Logan Jaffe.

“Only 10 institutions throughout the country hold half of the human remains that have not been repatriated,” she said on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “Part of how these institutions have managed to hold on [to the remains] is by claiming that, like the Illinois State Museum, that the vast majority of these collections are ‘culturally unidentifiable.’”

ProPublica reporter Logan Jaffe.
ProPublica reporter Logan Jaffe.

That label, Jaffe explained, has allowed museums to use their own reasoning when considering requests from Native groups to repatriate burial remains. “The law has left the museums in much more of a place of power, and control, over whether they're going to return or repatriate items and remains or not.”

Jaffe’s latest report for ProPublica’s Repatriation Project, “The Museum Built on Native American Burial Mounds,” focuses on the treatment of remains that were previously on display at the Dickson Mounds Museum. Before it was taken over by the state, the burial mounds left behind by Native civilizations had been broken into by tourists and amateur archeologists.

The impact of past excavations is also relevant to the burial remains at the Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville, Illinois. Last week, Lori Belknap, superintendent of Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, told St. Louis on the Air the remains excavated from the site were never displayed for the public in the manner used at Dickson Mounds. She said there are several hundred remains that continue to reside under the ownership of the Illinois State Museum.

Belknap said she supports efforts to repatriate the remains. “It will certainly be an honor for us to assist in the process of repatriating ancestors from early excavations here.” 

That position is one increasingly reflected in new leadership in Illinois museums and institutions, Jaffe noted. She said that state museums are talking about repatriation with more than two dozen tribes previously forced out of Illinois.

“This is a new effort that we're seeing across the state,” she continued. “There's reason to be hopeful — and there's also still reason to be skeptical, because this is hard work, and you're going to need a lot of state support to be able to pull it off as well.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."