Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

January 12, 2023

New database reveals where Native American human remains are being held

A depiction of one scene at Sand Creek by witness Howling Wolf Cheyenne

Give us our people back

Native American human remains are being held by museums and universities. Native Americans want to bring their ancestors home.

By Brenda Norrell
Censored News

A new database reveals which museums and universities have human remains of Native Americans. It shows which places have made those available for return, and which ones have not.

The database by ProPublica shows those not returning remains to the Tohono O'odham Nation including the University of Arizona Museum and Arizona State Museum. The places that have not made remains available to Oglala Lakota in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, include Harvard University and Milwaukee Public Museum

“We never ceded or relinquished our dead. They were stolen,” James Riding In, Pawnee and longtime professor at Arizona State University professor, said of the unreturned remains.

Lone Dog Winter Count, held at Smithsonian.

Now, Native American Nations struggle as museums and universities search for loopholes, to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, NAGPRA, which was created to protect the remains of nearly 600 Native American Nations.

“In life, they were not respected. They were forced to march. Removed,” said Danelle Gutierrez, the tribal historic preservation officer for the Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley. “Even in death, they aren’t respected.”

ProPublica journalists Mary Hudetz (Apsaalooke/Crow), Logan Jaffe and Ash Ngu were interested in investigating whether the promises of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, considered landmark human rights legislation, had been fulfilled.

"It is a starting point for understanding the damage done by generations of Americans who stole, collected and displayed the remains and possessions of the continent’s Indigenous Peoples," said ProPublica who is publishing this series in conjunction with NBC News.

Standing Rock: Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, ancestors have not been returned

Institutions reported making the remains of more than 2,300 Native Americans available for return to the Standing Rock Lakota Nation.

The tribe was also eligible to claim more than 14,100 associated funerary objects.

Institutions continue to hold the remains of at least 1,200 Native Americans taken from counties known to be of interest to Standing Rock.

These institutions have not made available for return the remains of at least 1,200 Native Americans that were taken from counties known to be of interest to the Standing Rock Lakota Nation. 

Milwaukee Public Museum 238
Dept. of Defense 184
Omaha District (181)
St. Paul District (2)
National Museum of Health and Medicine (1)
Harvard Univ., Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 168
Univ. of Wisconsin, Oshkosh 133
Illinois State Museum 52
Univ. of Wisconsin, La Crosse 49
Oshkosh Public Museum 48
Trinidad State Junior College 46
Center for American Archeology, Kampsville Archeological Center 45
Univ. of Wyoming, Dept. of Anthropology 43
Hastings Museum 30
American Museum of Natural History 27
Field Museum 22
Dept. of the Interior 20
Wyoming State Office (7)
Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge (4)
BIA (3)
Great Plains Region, Wyoming Area Office (3)
Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge (3)
Wisconsin Historical Society 20
Museum Division (15)
Historic Preservation Division (5)
Univ. of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Dept. of Anthropology 18
Univ. of Michigan, Museum of Anthropology 13
History Nebraska, (formerly Nebraska State Historical Society) 12
Grand Rapids Public Museum 9
Neville Public Museum 7
Ball State Univ., Dept. of Anthropology 6
South Dakota State Historical Society, State Archaeological Research Center 6
Univ. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Dept. of Anthropology 6
Univ. of Tennessee, Knoxville, Dept. of Anthropology 4
Univ. of Nebraska State Museum 3
Brigham Young Univ., Museum of Peoples and Cultures 2
Oberlin College 2
Rochester Museum and Science Center 2
Southern Illinois Univ., Carbondale, Center for Archaeological Investigations 2
Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer 2
Univ. of Northern Colorado 2
Cass County Historical Society Museum 1
Cleveland Museum of Natural History 1
Florida State Univ., Dept. of Anthropology 1
Indiana Univ., Dept. of Anthropology 1
Montana Historical Society 1
Montana State Univ., Museum of the Rockies 1
Natural History Museum of Utah 1
New York Univ., College of Dentistry 1
Springfield Science Museum 1
State Historical Society of Iowa 1
Tioga Point Museum 1
Univ. of California, Berkeley 1
Univ. of Kentucky, William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology 1
Univ. of Missouri, Columbia, Museum of Anthropology 1
Univ. of Pennsylvania, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Cheyenne and Arapaho: The Sand Creek Massacre 

Museums and universities have the remains of Cheyenne and Arapaho. The Sand Creek Massacre in southeast Colorado was among the horrific massacres of women and children by the U.S. Army. Now, Cheyenne and Arapaho want to bring their ancestors home, but some institutions are using loopholes to prevent the return of their ancestors. The image below shows where the remains of Cheyenne and Arapaho were taken from.

On the Longest Walk northern route at Sand Creek Massacre site in 2008, walkers remembered as they stood on sacred ground.

For the Cheyenne Arapaho on this journey, like Calvin Magpie, Jr., from Oklahoma, it was a time of profound sorrow, remembering the innumerable babies, children, women, men, and elderly who were shot in cold blood and mutilated. 

Northern Cheyenne taken

Northern Cheyenne remains were taken from Colorado, Nebraska, and elsewhere and put in museums and universities. The horrific massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho women and children was at Sand Creek in Colorado, among the many massacres carried out by the U.S. Army. 

Ten institutions hold the largest number of ancestors not being returned


"All of these institutions have used a loophole in the law that allows them to keep Native Americans remains if they deem them as “culturally unidentifiable,” meaning they can’t be culturally affiliated to a modern-day federally recognized tribe. Tribal representatives have long criticized NAGPRA for giving institutions the final say in these decisions." -- ProPublica

(Above) The University of California Berkeley has Native American remains taken from the areas shown. The orange symbol designates a large number have not been made available for return to their homelands.

Oglala Lakota Unreturned Remains

Where Oglala Lakota remains were taken from

Navajo Nation: Where Dine' were taken from

Universities, museums, and the Department of Interior took Dine' from these places. Some places are not releasing them. ProPublica database shows Dine' remains in the Natural History Museum in New York City, Field Museum in Chicago, and elsewhere that are not being released. The largest number of Native remains in the region were taken from San Juan County, New Mexico. Some institutions have made these ancestors' remains available to Hopi, Pueblos, Navajo, Ute, and Jicarilla Apache.

San Juan County, New Mexico: Who is not releasing them

The American Museum of Natural History in New York looted Native remains from New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon. The people were shipped by train to New York. They remain premiere collections of the institution, ProPublica reports.

Tohono O'odham: University of Arizona Museum has remains it is not returning

For the complete list go to

"An Interior Department spokesperson said it complies with its legal obligations and that its bureaus (such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Land Management) are not required to begin the repatriation of “culturally unidentifiable human remains” unless a tribe or Native Hawaiian organization makes a formal request." -- ProPublica

Trail of Tears -- University of Alabama has over 10,000 human remains

The University of Alabama has reported having more than 10,000 Native American human remains after completing an inventory of its museums - the first step in a long-awaited process to repatriate the remains back to tribes, Advance Local Media reported in September of 2022.

The 10,245 remains along with 1,500 funerary objects were excavated from Moundville and other sites in Hale and Tuscaloosa counties in the 1930s.

They are all believed to belong to the Muskogean language-speaking tribes, who were prominent in those areas of Alabama before being forced out during the Trail of Tears.

Read article:

"Give us our people back." Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the Chickasaw Nation, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and Alabama-Quassarte Tribal Town demand return.

Read article:

(Below) Institutions show more than 10,000 human remains were taken from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Nearly all have been made available for return. The image shows where large numbers of Native American human remains were taken. The places shown in orange show where very few human remains have been made available for return.

The theft and desecration continues

ProPublic said:

In 1990, Congress passed a law recognizing the unequal treatment of Native American remains and set up a process for tribes to request their return from museums and other institutions that had them. The law, known as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act or NAGPRA, sought to address this human rights issue by giving Indigenous peoples a way to reclaim their dead.

But 33 years after the law’s passage, at least half of the remains of more than 210,000 Native Americans have yet to be returned. Tribes have struggled to reclaim them in part because of a lack of federal funding for repatriation and because institutions face little to no consequences for violating the law or dragging their feet.

This database allows you to search for information on the roughly 600 federally funded institutions that reported having such remains to the Department of the Interior. While the data is self-reported, it is a starting point for understanding the damage done by generations of Americans who stole, collected and displayed the remains and possessions of the continent’s Indigenous peoples — and the work done by tribes and institutions to repatriate those Native ancestors since.

Read more and search database:

Article at ProPublica

Why ProPublica investigated whether the human rights legislation of NAGPRA was fulfilled

Search database:

Remains found in storage at the University of North Dakota

About the author

Brenda Norrell has been a news reporter in Indian country for 40 years. She began at the Navajo Times during the 18 years that she lived on the Navajo Nation. She served as a correspondent for Lakota Times, Associated Press and USA Today. After serving as a longtime staff reporter for Indian Country Today, she began Censored News to show what was being censored. Now a collective, with no ads, grants or salaries, Censored News has 22 million page views. She has a master's degree in international health focused on water, nutrition and infectious diseases.

Article copyright Brenda Norrell, Censored News

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