How Texas Establishments Flout the Native American Graves Safety and Repatriation Act


J.D. Reeves

Thirty years after Congress handed the Native American Graves Safety and Repatriation Act, solely a fraction of human stays held by Texas’ museums and universities have been returned.

By Amal Ahmed
November 16, 2020

Ramón Vásquez can’t let you know precisely what number of of his family have been dug up. He can’t let you know what number of are actually saved in climate-controlled rooms at museums or universities. And he can’t let you know what number of extra can be unearthed when shovels hit the bottom at development websites in and round San Antonio’s historic colonial missions. Vásquez is a member of the Faucet Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation, a tribe that also calls South Texas and Northern Mexico house. When Spanish colonizers arrived within the area within the 18th century and met the Coahuiltecan tribes, they didn’t violently power them off their lands or kill them on sight—for probably the most half. As an alternative, the Spanish constructed missions like San Juan and Valero, extra generally often called the Alamo, and tried to transform Indigenous communities to Catholicism. Some have been then buried on the mission grounds as Catholics.

By the twentieth century, archeology and anthropology college students in Texas have been taught that the Coahuiltecan have been extinct. In actual fact, a well-liked university-level textbook printed in 1961 and broadly used for a number of a long time acknowledged that the tribes had “dwindled to nearly nothingness” and been “destroyed by illness or absorbed into the Mexican inhabitants.”

But the Coahuiltecan stay. The tribe has by no means been acknowledged by the federal authorities and the State of Texas doesn’t have an official course of to designate tribal recognition, leaving Vásquez and different tribal members in a authorized limbo in the case of repatriating the stays of their family. Beneath a federal regulation referred to as the Native American Graves Safety and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), handed in 1990, establishments similar to museums and universities that obtain any federal funding and maintain Indigenous stays of their collections are required to repatriate them to the tribes they belong to. However whereas such establishments are required to work with federally acknowledged tribes, NAGPRA doesn’t mandate they work with tribes with out recognition. Therein lies the rub: In Texas, most of the stays belong to tribes that aren’t federally acknowledged, which implies that federal regulation doesn’t apply to them. Individuals like Vásquez are left to the whim and goodwill of college and museum curators.

Vásquez is the chief director of American Indians on the Spanish Colonial Missions, an academic and advocacy nonprofit working to dispel the parable that the tribe has disappeared whereas pushing for the return of its ancestors’ bones—whether or not dug up by means of archeological analysis excavations or, extra just lately, throughout development tasks. Vásquez says the work takes a lot of the group’s time. “It was by no means meant to be our job,” he says. “Nevertheless it positive did flip into that.”

Thirty years after Congress handed NAGPRA, the overwhelming majority of human stays haven’t been returned. As an alternative, collections have been moved to climate-controlled services whereas establishments muddle by means of the method of figuring out 1000’s of stays and tribes battle to seek out the funding wanted to repatriate and rebury their family. The NAGPRA workplace doesn’t monitor the variety of stays really reburied, however of the practically 200,000 stays held in federally funded collections nationally, solely 40 p.c have even gone by means of the method—a low customary indicating that the establishments that personal the gathering have, on the very least, tried to seek the advice of with tribes to find out the cultural affiliation of stated stays. In Texas, the proportion is decrease: Only a quarter of the state’s practically 5,000 Indigenous stays have gone by means of the NAGPRA course of. The Texas Archeological Analysis Laboratory (TARL) on the College of Texas at Austin, by far the state’s largest archeological repository, holds the stays of two,000 Indigenous individuals, the overwhelming majority “culturally unaffiliated” with any tribe. Up to now, the stays of solely two individuals have been returned from UT’s collections.


Until Congress handed NAGPRA it was authorized and, for probably the most half, academically acceptable for archeologists and anthropologists to excavate burial websites and conduct experiments on human bones, pottery, and funeral gadgets, or to make use of them as instructing instruments. “Native individuals have been thought of archeological objects, like pots,” says Jackie Swift, a member of the Comanche and Fort Sill Apache tribes and the repatriation supervisor on the Smithsonian’s Nationwide Museum of the American Indian. “Within the nineteenth century, there was this epiphany, like, ‘Oh no, the Indians are vanishing, so we have to take all the pieces we are able to in an effort to protect them in museums.’” This, even though the U.S. authorities engaged in ethnic cleaning and outright genocide to take away Indigenous communities from their homelands.

Within the Eighties, archeologists have been usually employed by personal builders for cultural useful resource administration previous to development tasks, that means that tribes to whom stays belonged could by no means have identified that their ancestors had been dug up. NAGPRA offered the primary authorized pathway for Indigenous peoples to reclaim human stays held in these collections. The regulation required establishments to take human stays and funeral objects out of show circumstances or analysis labs and to create inventories of them. Tribal representatives might then entry these inventories, make claims for repatriation, and eventually rebury their useless. For the primary few years, NAGPRA solely allowed federally acknowledged tribes to make repatriation claims however was later revised to permit others, just like the Coahuiltecan, to submit claims when no federally acknowledged tribe claimed the stays.

However in the end, universities and museums have the ultimate say on whether or not or to not interact in session with tribal nations. When stays are culturally unaffiliated—that means that the curator of a set can’t definitively decide which tribe the stays needs to be returned to—progress involves a digital standstill. The shortage of affiliation, whether or not it’s as a result of the stays are deemed too outdated or there’s no concrete proof, can be utilized as a purpose to disclaim session—notably with non-federally acknowledged tribes.

This July, the Texas Archeological Analysis Laboratory turned down a repatriation request from one other Coahuiltecan neighborhood, the Miakan Garza Band, which claimed that UT’s collections included a number of of their ancestors who lived in what’s at present Hays County. Brian Roberts, the middle’s director, stated that the band hadn’t offered sufficient proof. When the tribe appealed the choice to the college president’s workplace, Carlos Martinez, the previous chief of workers, wrote that “the regulation requires that sure requirements be met, and, on this case, the information merely can’t justify the requested repatriation. The regulation doesn’t enable repatriation just because a gaggle is keen to rebury the stays.” Then, after stress from college, workers, and college students, UT reversed course in late September and introduced it will search approval from the Nationwide Parks Service to switch management of the stays to the tribe.

J.D. Reeves

“UT, which has repatriated stays up to now, has sought all alongside to observe finest practices and federal regulation,” J.B. Fowl, the college’s spokesperson, stated in a press release. “Consulting the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act Evaluate Committee affords one other means to do this.”

Regardless of its flaws, NAGPRA is championed by Indigenous peoples as a vital, if incomplete, first step towards undoing centuries of plunder. Nevertheless it’s been a sluggish course of. The inventories, required after the regulation was handed, weren’t due till 1995, says Melanie O’Brien, the supervisor of the NAGPRA program, and “that was the extent of the proactive necessities on a museum [or university].”

Many establishments are nonetheless making up for many years of poor record-keeping on stays that ended up of their collections. Southern Methodist College in Dallas, for instance, submitted its required inventories in 1995, solely to find in 2013 that a few of the collections, which had been closed as a consequence of funds cuts or placed on mortgage to different establishments, have been by no means reported to the federal authorities. It took two extra years to lift funding and full the stock and decide the cultural affiliation of the stays, says Sunday Eiselt, an anthropology professor who oversees SMU’s repatriations.

Then there’s the problem of the place the stays got here from. Some universities, like Texas A&M, have devoted NAGPRA coordinators, sometimes professors, who work on figuring out cultural affiliation. “Individuals don’t randomly bury their useless; even at this time, burial grounds are sacred websites. They will tie you to a homeland and outline your identification,” says Heather Thakar, A&M’s NAGPRA coordinator. It’s her job to piece collectively the identification of the stays held at A&M. However up to now, some have been donated to universities by personal residents who provided up little data. Fifty years in the past, for instance, a rancher donated the bones discovered on his land to A&M for analysis. No location as to the place they have been discovered was offered and no different data exists, making it practically unattainable to pin down any tribal affiliation. Carbon relationship or DNA testing would destroy components of these bones, so archeologists and tribal officers are often hesitant to conduct such analyses. And not using a sense of the place the human stays have been dug up or how outdated they may be, it’s tough to know which tribes have to be consulted. In some circumstances, the funerary objects buried with the useless can present clues, however these gadgets usually disappear to non-public collections or are offered in profitable black markets.

“It’s a large number. There’s no two methods about it,”  Thakar says. “We have been grave robbers.”

Even when stays might be recognized, it doesn’t at all times imply that they are often reburied correctly. In 2010, the anthropology division at Stephen F. Austin State College, in Nacogdoches, consulted with the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma and decided that the entire college’s stays and funerary objects belonged to the tribe, having been excavated from burial mounds in Caddo homelands in East Texas. However at this time, these stays are nonetheless on cabinets on the college, regardless of having been legally repatriated on paper.

“The Caddo tell us that they needed to rebury the stays and the vessels, and their apply had been to rebury them as near the place they got here from as doable,” says Jerry Williams, a sociology professor on the college who was concerned with the repatriation course of. However the unique burial mounds have been in a public space, which might have turn out to be a goal for looting but once more. A viable reburial possibility has but to be labored out and would require funding for a brand new burial website or buying a plot in an present historic cemetery. “That’s one of many actual weaknesses in NAGPRA,” Williams says. “It’s form of like if a scientist went and dug up your grandmother and put her in a repository—after which requested you to fund reburying her.”


In 2016, the Miakan Garza band efficiently repatriated six units of human stays from Texas State College in San Marcos that had been unearthed throughout development on campus. Initially, the stays have been labeled culturally unaffiliated. However Maria Rocha and Mario Garza, the husband-and-wife staff who run the nonprofit Indigenous Cultures Institute, say that their family have lived within the San Marcos area for 1000’s of years, leaving little doubt of their minds as to the affiliation of the stays.

However in the course of the evaluate course of, tribal representatives from the Caddo Nation and the Mescalero Apache questioned why the Miakan Garza Band had seemingly sprung up in a single day—Garza and Rocha based the Indigenous Cultures Institute in 2006, however earlier than that, there was just about no document of the band having existed. “Now we have claimed that space for fairly a while,” Holly Houghten, the tribal historic preservation officer for the Mescalero Apache Tribe, stated in a 2015 assembly. “It’s documented within the historic document. There’s treaties which can be signed.”

Pushback from federally acknowledged tribes leaves non-recognized tribes at an obstacle, as they continuously must show their authenticity or try to satisfy federal requirements for recognition—a course of that may take 30 years or extra. Establishments may also select to write down them off, decreasing the variety of tribes they have to attain out to whereas additionally reinforcing colonial definitions of Indigeneity.

However Bryant Celestine, the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe’s historic preservation officer, says that repatriation runs into the problem of tribal sovereignty. “The final word aim for us as a tribe is to attempt to get all human stays out of collections, as a result of they aren’t artifacts,” he says. “However [non-federally recognized tribes] don’t have any proper to insert themselves into government-to-government consultations.” Celestine and different tribal historic preservation officers have usually advocated in opposition to establishments working with non-federally acknowledged tribes, which is among the causes that the Faucet Pilam have been fully locked out of discussions concerning human stays unearthed on the Alamo throughout renovations final 12 months. In accordance with the Alamo Belief, the nonprofit that manages the Alamo’s operations, a 3rd of the stays have been recognized as “Coahuiltecan-speaking Indigenous” individuals, and some extra as “probably” Coahuiltecan.

Nonetheless, no Coahuiltecan representatives have been invited to take part within the Alamo Mission Archaeology Advisory Committee. Solely federal tribes, just like the Caddo, Alabama-Coushatta, Seminole, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, have been requested to affix. The stays on the Alamo don’t fall beneath the jurisdiction of NAGPRA, for the reason that Alamo Belief doesn’t obtain federal funding, however the group stated in a press release that it’s consulting with the federal tribes “within the spirit of NAGPRA.”

In February, Ramon Vásquez and the Faucet Pilam sued the Alamo Belief in addition to the town of San Antonio, the Texas Historic Fee, and the Texas Common Land Workplace, that are all concerned in redevelopment plans for the world. The lawsuit claims that excluding the Faucet Pilam from repatriation consultations was discriminatory and denied them the suitable to carry out non secular reburial ceremonies for his or her ancestors.

“It’s such as you’re saying, ‘All these Indians are the identical,’” Vásquez says. Not the entire federally acknowledged tribes concerned with the advisory committee had historic ties to the Alamo or the broader San Antonio area, however some tribal representatives wrote to the Alamo Belief reiterating that they view the Faucet Pilam as a “socially constructed group,” which imply it doesn’t have the identical authorized standing as federally acknowledged tribes. A federal decide dismissed the go well with in late September.

The stays which have been unearthed on the Alamo are just a few hundred years outdated; Vásquez says they may even belong to his great-great-grandmother. “It’s form of upsetting that [the federally recognized tribes] would take the place that they’ve the only real authority over our individuals, when that recognition is a political act,” he says. “It doesn’t decide who’s Indigenous.”

But to this point, the Faucet Pilam have repatriated dozens of human stays, some by means of NAGPRA and a few by means of channels just like the Catholic Archdiocese, which oversees most of the historic Catholic burial grounds the place Indigenous individuals have been buried.


For all its flaws, NAGPRA does present a pathway for repatriation that merely didn’t exist 30 years in the past. “NAGPRA is the ground, not the ceiling,” says Shannon Keller O’Laughlin, an legal professional and the chief director of the Affiliation on American Indian Affairs. “There is no such thing as a limitation set by NAGPRA—you may go above and past what it requires.”

This month, the California Legislature handed a invoice that will develop the suitable of non-federally acknowledged tribes to repatriate stays within the state. Since 2001, the state has had its personal model of NAGPRA: State-funded establishments are required to create inventories and seek the advice of with California Indian tribes who search to repatriate and rebury the stays of their ancestors. The state regulation was meant to account for the truth that many tribes in California misplaced their federal tribal standing by means of the pressured assimilation insurance policies of the twentieth century. It additionally coated state-held collections, which wouldn’t have been coated by NAGPRA. The regulation expands the variety of tribes that qualify for state recognition by means of the Native American Heritage Fee and require universities to rent a coordinator to seek the advice of with tribes.

In Texas, the state authorities has barely addressed tribal affairs since 1989, when the Legislature dissolved the Texas Indian Fee, ignoring suggestions from the state’s Sundown Fee to restructure and strengthen the company.

Recognizing tribes in Texas might go a great distance in addressing long-standing inequities in points like schooling, housing, and entry to well being care. At UT-Austin, college and college students are actually urging the administration to step up and interact with Native communities: In September, the Native American and Indigenous Research Program introduced a land acknowledgement to the UT’s College Council, which represents greater than 3,700 professors and workers members. The proposal asks the college to acknowledge that the campus sits on stolen land and to commit extra assets to Native American college students. This system has additionally requested for UT to repatriate all of the stays held on the Texas Archeological Analysis Laboratory.

Regardless of the paperwork that has held up repatriation for therefore a few years, Indigenous individuals like Ramon Vásquez intend to maintain doing the work. Vásquez doesn’t need his son and grandson to must repatriate and rebury their ancestors. He’d like to complete the duty throughout his lifetime. The method is a continuing reminder, he says, that even in dying, Indigenous persons are thought of lower than human.

“This has gotten so unhealthy for our neighborhood that persons are altering their wills, from being buried to being cremated,” he says. “They don’t ever wish to be dug up.”   

Indigenous Affairs tales are produced with assist from the Financial Hardship Reporting Mission.

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