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Fronteras: Repatriation Project highlights the decades-long struggle to repatriate Native American remains

The forced expulsions of indigenous people in the name of colonization led to the widespread looting of their homes, places of worship, and graves.

Any items that weren’t destroyed were collected by museums and universities, and sometimes used in educational settings to teach about early human history.

Many Native American tribes have attempted to reclaim ancestral remains and objects from these institutions — often to no avail.

In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, required federally-funded universities and museums to return remains to descendants or tribal nations.

Thirty-three years later, more than 100,000 Native American remains are still held by U.S. institutions.

A recent investigation published by ProPublica and NBC News revealed the loopholes some institutions have used to avoid returning ancestral remains and objects.

The investigation also revealed a renewed interest by some institutions in repatriating remains.

It includes data on several Texas institutions that are in possession of unrepatriated remains, including the University of Texas at San Antonio and San Antonio’s Witte Museum.

Graham Lee Brewer, a reporter covering indigenous communities and tribal nations with NBC, contributed to the report.

He said while NAGPRA was a result of the generational activism of tribes, flaws in the system have hindered repatriation.

“The federal law kind of lacks teeth in a lot of cases and there’s a real lack of enforcement,” he said. “We were seeing how many numbers there were of cases that were unresolved.”

Ramón Vásquez — a member of the Tāp Pīlam Coahuiltecan Nation, and executive director of American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions — has been part of a decades-long fight to repatriate indigenous remains in San Antonio.

He said while NAGPRA was created to protect the heritage of tribal communities, it has been difficult for non-federally recognized tribes, like Tāp Pīlam, to receive remains.

“Unfortunately, in the past ten years, it definitely has been used as a way to prevent non-federally recognized tribes from participating under the law that affords them that participation.”

The Witte Museum provided the following statement:

"The Witte Museum has been actively working with the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan people and Aboriginal people of Texas to return these individuals to their ancestors. There is a plan in place to do this, and we are working closely with NAGPRA on that plan."

View a statement from the UTSA Center for Archaeological Research below:

Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1