JACKSON, Miss. – A man and a woman were found buried among wolf teeth and turtle shells. Other graves contained mothers and infants. Some tribal members were laid to rest with beloved dogs.
Over the last century, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History has stored the remains of hundreds of Native Americans who once inhabited the state. Most of the remains were found in the Mississippi Delta and range from 750 to 1,800 years old. For decades, they sat on shelves in the state's collections.
Now, 403 Chickasaw ancestors have been returned to their people and will be laid in their final resting place on Mississippi soil.
This initiative is the largest of its kind conducted by the state of Mississippi since the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, three decades ago.
Since 1990, federal law has required that institutions like museums and schools that receive federal funding return human remains, funerary objects and other sacred items to their Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian descendants.
“We see the repatriation process as an act of love," said Amber Hood, Director of Historic Preservation and Repatriation for The Chickasaw Nation. “These are our grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles and cousins from long ago.”
Through the years, enactment of NAGPRA has moved faster in some states than others. Around 83,000 remains in the U.S. had been returned to descendants as of this fall, according to data provided to The Associated Press by the National Park Service. But at least another 116,000 ancestors are still waiting to be returned.
Anne Amati, NAGPRA coordinator with the University of Denver Museum of Anthropology, said institutions in southeastern U.S. house more remains than anywhere else in the country.
Many dozens of tribes, including the Chickasaw, Choctaw and Cherokee, once lived across millions of acres throughout the southeastern U.S. They were forcibly and violently removed by the U.S. government following the Indian Removal Act of the 1830s.
Following the Great Depression, thousands of graves were disrupted by the Tennessee Valley Authority as workers constructed reservoirs.
Almost 11,500 remains from Tennessee have now been returned to descendants, but 21,200 remain in the state. More than 18,600 in Alabama have been returned, with around 10,650 still in-state.
A survey of institutions by the University of Denver in 2019-20 found that obstacles to completing NAGPRA work included funding, time and incomplete or inaccurate information in catalog records about Native American collections. There's also some fear among museum professionals, Amati said.
“I think one of the fears is that they’ve done something wrong," Amati said. "They don’t want to get in trouble, whether it’s with the government or with tribes.”
Still, more and more institutions are becoming engaged in the repatriation process, Amati said.
Many remains in Mississippi were discovered by Delta farmers developing land in the 1950s to 1970s. In some instances, shell beads, stone tools, celts and vessels found in burial sites in the U.S. have been put on exhibit in museums.
Meg Cook, the MDAH’s director of archaeology, said the state had not only a legal responsibility to return remains, but an ethical one. Repatriations are now the main priority for the state’s archaeology collection.
“We’re doing everything that we can to reconcile the past and move forward, in a very transparent way," she said. “It’s our responsibility to tell the Mississippi story. And that means all of the bad parts, too."
The department has worked to create bonds with its 11 tribal partners, not only to repatriate remains but also to uplift historically underrepresented voices. A sign above the door where remains are housed in the Department of Archives and History now reads, “This is a reverent space. Please respect the individuals that are resting here.”
There are still more than 1,000 remains to be identified and returned to tribes in Mississippi alone.
The Chickasaw Nation advised MDAH that they wished for remains and objects from their ancestors to be transported in muslin bags, which will decompose in soil when reburied. Volunteers were recruited during the pandemic shutdown to make the bags at home.
“Volunteers knew they were helping in some ways to bring these people home, to put them to rest," Cook said.
The state is planning to launch a new website — NAGPRA.MDAH.ms.gov — the week of April 2. Browsers can peruse interactive maps and other resources documenting the repatriation process in Mississippi.
Willingham is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.