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Behind ProPublica’s Reporting on Repatriation

Our reporters answer frequently asked questions about The Repatriation Project from leaders and citizens of tribal nations.

By By Asia Fields, Mary Hudetz, Logan Jaffe and Ash Ngu / ProPublica / January 11, 2023

Walter Echo-Hawk, a Pawnee attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, testifies at a congressional hearing in July 1989 on the issue of repatriation. At the time, Echo-Hawk said, “Desecration and expropriation of Native graves, dead bodies and associated burial goods is clearly the most grisly and frightening problem confronting American Indians today.” Credit:Ed Lallo/Getty Images

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When ProPublica set out to report on Native American remains and cultural items held by U.S. institutions, we knew we would need to listen closely to Indigenous people and gather feedback.

Repatriation can be a sensitive topic. Museums, universities and agencies in the United States hold the remains of more than 100,000 people and several hundred thousand funerary objects, a legacy of looting and the displacement of Native Americans during North America’s violent colonization.

“In life, they were not respected. They were forced to march. Removed,” said Danelle Gutierrez, the tribal historic preservation officer for the Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley. “Even in death, they aren’t respected.”

We heard similar sentiments from many Indigenous people. In May, we published a post inviting people to share what they knew, and sent it to hundreds of tribal leaders and historic preservation officers, as well as museum workers. We also showed tribal representatives an early version of our interactive tool and collected their feedback.

We heard some common questions about our reporting process, so we’ve created this post to answer them. If you have additional feedback, we’d like to hear from you. If you want to learn more about our specific efforts, we’re also happy to answer questions.

Why did ProPublica decide to report on repatriation?

ProPublica journalists Mary Hudetz (Apsaalooke/Crow), Logan Jaffe and Ash Ngu were interested in investigating whether the promises of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, considered landmark human rights legislation, had been fulfilled.

Answering this question was consistent with ProPublica’s mission to investigate issues and hold powerful institutions and people accountable, with the goal of creating real-world impact. The journalists, along with others across ProPublica, spent almost two years working to understand the complexities and failures of NAGPRA. They plan to continue this reporting this year.

What are ProPublica’s intentions in reporting on repatriation?

From the outset of our reporting, it was clear that NAGPRA was not meeting its objectives. We wanted to understand why and what had happened in the 30-plus years since its passage. We’ve created an interactive tool that shows each institution’s progress — or lack of progress — on repatriation. The stories in this series and this tool reveal the scope of the failure of museums, universities and others to return human remains and objects.

We hope this tool is helpful to anyone interested in comparing institutions’ progress and to tribes and organizations seeking to facilitate repatriation. It also includes information about which institutions still have control of human remains that may be connected to specific tribes.

Like all of ProPublica’s journalism, the Repatriation Project does not advocate for specific reforms.

Why does ProPublica think its work can lead to change when Indigenous people have worked on repatriation for decades?

Tribal representatives, including some of those who informed our stories, advocated for the creation of NAGPRA and have pressured institutions to adhere to it since. For decades, they’ve testified in front of Congress, protested and worked with limited funding to reclaim their ancestors’ remains and dignity. We hope our reporting will encourage broader awareness of the slow progress of repatriation and those responsible for fixing it.

How did ProPublica incorporate community feedback in The Repatriation Project?

There are diverse viewpoints among and within the nearly 600 federally recognized Native American and Alaska Native tribes and villages, Native Hawaiian organizations and hundreds of tribes without federal recognition.

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