Decades after their
bones were placed in storage, the state has repatriated the remains
of 403 Indigenous ancestors
The William F. Winter
Archives and History Building in Jackson, Mississippi (Photo
by Tom Beck / Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives
Between 750 and 1,800 years ago, hundreds of Native Americans in
what is now the northern Mississippi Delta region were buried alongside
their kin and pet dogs in graves decorated with wolf teeth, beads,
vases and turtle shells.
Instead of remaining in the ground as their loved ones had intended,
the deceased were eventually unearthed by archaeologists and placed
in state storage, as Brian Broom reports for the Mississippi
Clarion Ledger. Their remains sat on shelves in the Mississippi
Department of Archives and History (MDAH) for decades.
That injustice was finally rectified last month, when the department
repatriated the remains of 403 Native American people, as well as
83 burial lots, to the Chickasaw
Nation. Per a statement,
the move marks the largest return of human remains in Mississippi
since the passage of the Native
American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) 31
"We see the repatriation process as an act of love," Amber Hood,
director of historic preservation and repatriation for the Chickasaw
Nation, tells the Associated Press' (AP) Leah Willingham. "These
are our grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles and cousins from
An open-source map showing
the historic territories of Indigenous tribes in the southeastern
United States (Native Land Digital)
As Hood adds in the statement, "Caring for our ancestors is extremely
important to us."
Signed into law in 1990, NAGPRA
gives Native groups the legal right to reclaim their ancestors'
remains, in addition to cultural objects held by federally funded
institutions, according to the National
Park Service. Before the 19th century, the Chickasaw Nation
controlled land throughout western Tennessee and northern Mississippi.
After President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian
Removal Act in 1830, however, United States authorities forcibly
removed the Chickasaw tribes to land west of the Mississippi
The massive repatriation effort required more than two years of
planning, reports Mississippi news station WLBT.
The Chickasaw Nation advised the MDAH to transport the remains in
muslin bags, which will eventually decompose after being buried
in the ground. A crew of volunteers helped the MDAH hand sew the
necessary bags at home during the Covid-19 pandemic, per the AP.
"Volunteers knew they were helping in some ways to bring these
people home, to put them to rest," Cook tells the AP.
According to the Clarion Ledger, the Chickasaw Nation will
rebury the remains in a ceremony held at an undisclosed location
in Mississippi later this year.
Volunteers sewed these
muslin bags, which were used to transport the remains of 403
Native Americans back to the Chickasaw Nation. (Mississippi
Department of Archives and History)
The National Park Service tells the AP that nationwide, about 83,000
Native Americans' remains have been returned to their descendants
since NAGPRA's passage. But at least 116,000 are still in storage
in various cultural institutions.
The remains of more than 1,000 individuals in Mississippi's state
collections have yet to be identified and repatriated, per the AP.
Those interested in tracking the state's progress with further repatriation
efforts can visit the department's new, dedicated website.
Meg Cook, MDAH's director of archaeology, tells the AP that repatriation
is now the state archaeology collection's main priority.
"We're doing everything that we can to reconcile the past and move
forward, in a very transparent way," says Cook.
"It is important to remember that these are people, buried with
items with strong cultural ties to their communities, the same way
that people today might be laid to rest wearing a wedding band,"
she adds in the statement. "While these artifacts inform the archaeological
record, it is our ethical and legal obligation to see that they
Nora McGreevy is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. Her work
has appeared in Wired, Washingtonian, the Boston Globe, South Bend
Tribune, the New York Times and more. She can be reached through
her website, noramcgreevy.com.