Collected by an
anthropologist in 1931, the National Museum of Natural History returned
the bones to the village of Igiugig
Nicholas Russian Orthodox Churches Igiugig Lake and Peninsula
West fronts and south sides of both churches, old church on
In late September, the remains of 24 native Alaskans excavated
by a Smithsonian anthropologist returned to their ancestral home
for the first time in almost nine decades.
The repatriation request was made by the village of Igiugig,
which is mostly made up of indigenous Alaskan Yupik people, who
claim affiliation with the bones, reports Avery
Lill at NPR. The bones and funerary objects were originally
collected from the area in 1931 by Ale
Hrdlicka, head of the physical anthropology department at what
is now the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.
Lill reports that the repatriation of the bones was a two-year
process. After the village requested the returns of the remains,
the National Museum of Natural History, which housed them, went
through the process of verifying that the remains were affiliated
with the residents of Igiugig by examining Hrdlicka's diary entries
and other documents. The museum also consulted with the villagers,
who related the fact that the now-abandoned village of Kaskanak,
where most of the remains were found, was once inhabited by residents
"This was a collaborative effort between the Smithsonian and
our village, but it was really us telling them that these are ours,"
AlexAnna Salmon, a researcher and Igiugig local, tells Lill. "This
is who we are. It's not anthropology coming from the other direction,
telling you who you are and where you came from."
The return of sacred objects and human remains to indigenous
peoples has been bolstered in recent years by a series of federal
laws. In 1989 Congress enacted the National Museum of the American
Indian Act, which put the Smithsonian in charge of a new museum
and instructed the Institution to inventory, identify, and consider
for returnif requested by a Native community or individualhuman
remains and funerary objects?. In 1990, the Native American Graves
Protection and Repatriation Act instructed any federal agency or
federally funded institution to do the same.
village of Igiugig performed a traditional Yupik blessing
dance following the reburial of 24 ancestors. (photo by Avery
Lill - KDLG)
Since then, the Smithsonian alone has repatriated or made available
for repatriation the remains of more than 6,100 individuals 250,000
funerary objects and 1,400 sacred objects, according to the Institution's
report on repatriation activities.
But repatriation is not as simple as returning artifacts or
remains to tribal bodies. Some remains, for instance, are hundreds
or thousands of years old and it is difficult to find direct ancestors
or culturally affiliated peoples. Making a repatriation claim can
also take time, money and research, which makes the pursuit of repatriation
"There are 560 plus tribes and they all have their own protocols,
organization and problems that they are trying to deal with on a
day-to-day basis," Bill Billeck, director of the National Museum
of Natural History's Repatriation Office, tells Smithsonian.com.
"While they may be interested in repatriation they have not have
had the time and resources to work on it."
Last year, the National Museum of Natural History repatriated
the remains of 25 individuals and the National Museum of the American
Indian repatriated 26. This year, Billeck says that in addition
to the 24 sets of remains returned to Alaska, the National Museum
of Natural History has returned eight other sets of remains to four
native communities. Repatriation efforts are expected to continue
for years or decades to come.
carrying Igiugig ancestors are loaded onto a skiff for the
final stretch of their journey, from the Smithsonian in Washington,
D.C., to a burial ground in Alaska. (photo by Avery Lill -
For the people of Igiugig, the repatriation was an emotional
coming home ceremony. The remains were flown into town in a small
prop plane and placed in three wooden coffins. They were then taken
to the Russian Orthodox Church in town where they were given a funeral.
Afterward, they were loaded onto a boat and taken to a burial site
overlooking the Kvichak River, where a priest, villagers and Kirk
Johnson, director of the National Museum of Natural History, attended
Billeck says repatriation can serve as a bridge between indigenous
people and the research community, who have much to learn from one
another. In fact, he says, this week a resident of Igiugig is coming
to the museum to look at research materials related to the community's
"Repatriation is the beginning of, in some cases, a long relationship,"
Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing
in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work
has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men's Journal,
and other magazines.
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