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Texas Institutions Still Hold Indigenous Remains Despite Federal Law

Texas said 25 percent of human remains are available for return, according to the ProPublica database, which tracks where Native American human remains were removed and which institutions still hold them. The U.S. Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990, which recognized the injustice suffered by Indigenous communities, and Native American human remains were ordered to be sent back to their respective tribes.

Texas institutions, schools and research centers still hold 75 percent of the 4,400 human remains recorded in their collections.

The database showed that the institution in the state with the most Indigenous remains is the University of Texas at the Austin Archaeological Research Laboratory. The lab has made it possible to return 341 remains, but they still have 1,905 Native American human remains in their possession. On Friday, the lab did not respond to the comment.

The same database showed that institutions reported that 5 percent of the remains of 57 Native Americans removed from Harris County, Texas, are available for return to tribes in accordance with NAGPRA,” according to ProPublica.

According to the site, making the human remains available for return means that under NAGPRA, the institution must establish a link between the indigenous tribes and the remains of the indigenous people. The same institution must then draw up a list of tribes entitled to claim damages.

“Physical displacement may occur following the tribe’s announcement,” ProPublica reporters Ash Ngu and Andrea Suozzo wrote. “Many of the remains have been physically returned to the tribes, but data on this is sketchy because the law does not require institutions to report when such transfers occur.”

Tribes across the country have also struggled to obtain the remains due to a lack of federal funding to file a damages claim, according to ProPublica. In addition, institutions that refuse to return the remains face very few consequences for violating the law or delaying the return.

There are penalties for institutions that do not comply with NAGPRA and repatriate Indigenous remains. However, the process is only amended after a written complaint has been filed and an investigation completed by the NAGPRA Enforcement Coordinator. Each facility that holds indigenous remains also has a NAGPRA coordinator.

The federal NAGPRA program did not respond to a request for comment. According to a ProPublica report, some of the nation’s largest institutions, such as museums, public universities and research centers, claim to have preserved the remains for scientific research.

A total of 609 institutions reported the presence of indigenous remains; of these hundreds of institutions, more than 52 percent of the remains have not been returned to their tribes.

No. 1 on the list with the most remains is UC Berkeley, which still holds 9,705 sets of Native American remains.

Number 2, the Illinois State Museum holds over 7,590 First Nations remains. And at number 3, the Ohio History Connection was left with 7,167 Native Americans.

According to the 2021 Census, 8.75 million people in the US identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, which is 2.6 percent of the US population. Census data also shows that the majority of indigenous communities live in Alaska, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. As of the 2022 census, American Indians and Alaska Natives made up 1.1 percent of Harris County’s population. The Texas data also shows the same percentage.

Infectious diseases and violence by European colonizers have taken the lives of thousands of indigenous communities since 1492. Ninety percent of Native Americans died from diseases such as smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, and European violence.

According to former University of Houston downtown faculty member David Michael Smith, European colonization and violence killed more than 100 million indigenous people in the Western Hemisphere.

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