For decades, the remains of thousands of Native Americans have been resting at a university in Tennessee. But this spring, they will finally go home.
Archaeologists unearthed more than 2,000 Arikara and Mandan ancestral remains in South Dakota during the mid-20th century as part of the Missouri River Basin Survey, according to a November Federal Register report. The goal of the survey was to preserve objects that would otherwise be destroyed by an upcoming construction project.
Pete Coffey’s ancestors were among those whose remains were recovered. He believes that these Arikara and Mandan remains are more than just items of historical significance.
“To native people, the spirits are very real,” said Coffey, the director of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office for the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. “These are all elders, they have been disturbed and they need to be put back into the earth as soon as possible.”
Once spring comes and the ground thaws, it will be time for their spirits to be laid to rest with their tribe, who now lives in North Dakota, he said.
Reuniting the remains with the tribe
The remains have been stored at the University of Tennessee since 1971, along with thousands of other Native American objects, according to the university.
In 2017, the university created a committee to repatriate the remains. The committee coordinates with the tribes and the Army Corps of Engineers Omaha District, which owns the land where the artifacts were originally excavated.
Robert Hinde, a professor at the university, is leading the effort.
“It’s important for universities and museums to re-examine their collections that have accumulated over decades or centuries,” Hinde said. “The process of building a museum or collection years ago was done through a different set of ethical lenses than we have nowadays.”
Federal laws about excavating remains have changed since these artifacts were found.
In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act provided the first federal guidance for the reunification process. The act required universities and museums to notify tribes about cultural items found on federal or tribal lands. It does not apply to private or state lands, though.
Agencies from all over the world contacted Coffey about remains belonging to his tribe, acting on behalf of that federal law.
The tribe just wants to let the dead rest
Reuniting the ancestors with the earth is the next step, but there is a looming concern about looting, a problem plaguing Native American burial sites.
Coffey does not like to talk about this topic out of respect for the dead. He said he only does so to raise awareness that looting and grave robbing of Native American objects is still an issue.
“If you look on Ebay sometimes, if you look on Amazon, you’ll see ceremonial objects or things for sale,” he said. “Those things shouldn’t be done. They should be left the way they were originally.”
When the remains are returned to the tribe, Coffey said they will rebury them with as little fanfare as possible.
“We just simply apologize, in a way, for them having been disturbed, and we more or less tell them, ‘You’re home now. You will never be disturbed again,’” he said.
Though the ceremony will be subdued, he is looking forward to it.
“I’ll just be feeling a sense of accomplishment for finally having done something, finally have given back enough, to have brought these old people home,” Coffey said.