Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

February 21, 2023

The Hidden Files: The BIA's Museum Program -- Stolen Property, Stolen Lives

 (Above) BIA Museum report was obtained by FOIA in 2019

The Hidden Files: The BIA’s Museum Program – Stolen Property, Stolen Lives

By Brenda Norrell
Censored News

Hidden in the files are the facts about the BIA Museum Program, a collection of 8 million items in bags and boxes, and on shelves, in 156 places, 87 BIA and 69 non-BIA facilities. It includes Native ancestors' remains, sacred items stolen from their graves, and artifacts.

The facts about the BIA storage facilities are only known because of a freedom of information act request.

It reveals that non-BIA facilities are being used as holding facilities for vast amounts of the BIA's "collections" in Arizona, New Mexico, California, Utah, Kansas, South Dakota, Idaho and Illinois. (See list below.)

Two of these are in Tucson. The largest of the BIA collections is at the University of Arizona's Arizona State Museum, and the National Park Service repository, near downtown Tucson. Some of these precious items are being held at museums in substandard conditions at museums in South Dakota, Arizona, and Utah, according to the BIA's report.

What are the 8 million items in the BIA Museum Collection? The BIA does not provide a public list. However, the repatriation notices of the BIA reveal some of the items. 

The BIA has burial blankets of a Dine' infant -- and the saddle parts, wooden brush and juniper berries taken from Dine' whose graves were dug up by Peabody Coal for mining on Black Mesa, according to the BIA's NAGPRA notice.

The Dine' family members were reburied in a cemetery on the Navajo Nation in 1971, without these burial items.

The Dine' family members' graves were among hundreds of Navajo and Hopi ancestral remains dug up during Peabody Coal's mining on Black Mesa. Peabody Coal hired an anthropologist at Prescott College and for 16 years, he led 16 expeditions that resulted in one of the largest robbing of graves in U.S. history.

Today, Southern Illinois University has several million artifacts taken from graves on Black Mesa. The Dine' and Hopi ancestral remains, 341 remains, were reburied in 1999 near where they were taken after being in five museums.

The BIA Museum Collection includes sacred items from Sun Dances. A Shoshone Sun Dance whistle was made available for return to Eastern Shoshone on Wind River in Wyoming, according to the NAGPRA notice in the Federal Register.

For many Native people, the BIA did not just steal their property -- it stole their lives.

Harvard University admitted in November that it harbored a collection of Native children's hair locks taken from Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools.

Anthropologist George Edward Woodbury took 700 locks of hair in the 1930s for racist experiments attempting to show white superiority. Harvard's Peabody Museum has hundreds of locks taken from students at Sherman Indian School in Riverside, California, Fort Totten School in North Dakota, the Indian Vocational School in Albuquerque and other schools. (List of schools)

Victor Lopez-Carmen, Crow Creek Lakota, a medical student at Harvard, told the New York Times that he was devastated to learn about the hair sample collection in an email from the university’s Native American program.

“I still feel a sense of disgust that Harvard has had these hair clippings for decades and we are just finding out about it now,” Lopez-Carmen said. “Also that they even accepted them in the first place.”

BIA Harboring Native Remains

The BIA currently has 1,111 Native ancestors' remains that the BIA has not made available for return, as required by the federal law, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

This map by ProPublica reveals where the ancestors were taken from. These remains are now in the collections of the Interior Department -- which includes the BIA, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and other agencies.

Those shown in green have been made available for return by the BIA, BLM, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and other Interior Department agencies. Those shown in orange have not been made available for return, as required by federal law. Search this map at:

–The largest number of ancestors' remains held by the Interior Department agencies were taken from Montezuma County in Colorado, home of Mesa Verde, 1,560.

-- The Interior has 1,351 ancestors' human remains from Navajo County in Arizona, home to the Navajo, Hopi, and White Mountain Apache Nations. Black Mesa and its perpetrator, Peabody Coal, are also located in Navajo County.

–In Socorro County, New Mexico, 945 ancestors were taken. Today’s modern-day Socorro was the home of Pueblos.

The Hyde Expedition plundered Chaco Canyon.
Photo by George Pepper.

–In San Juan County, New Mexico, 666 ancestors remains were taken and harbored by the Interior Department agencies. Anthropologists plundered Chaco Canyon. From 1896 to 1901, archaeologist George Pepper and rancher Richard Wetherill, of the Hyde Expedition, robbed Pueblo Bonito's 600 rooms and 40 kivas. Today, the Greater Chaco Canyon region is devastated by oil, gas, and fracking wells and drilling.

Interior Harboring Ancestors Remains

– The Interior agencies have made only three percent of the human remains taken from Graham County in Arizona available for return. It is home to the San Carlos Apache Nation. 

-- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife has hundreds of ancestors' remains that it has not returned, taken from sites like Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, both in Florida.

– Throughout Wyoming, ancestors' remains were taken and have not been made available for return by the Interior agencies. Although the BIA has not returned the ancestors, the University of Wyoming in Laramie is returning to Wind River Arapaho ancestors' remains of 28 individuals, and sacred items taken from burial places. These include a mirror, elk teeth; a bison tooth, an elkhorn hide scraper, an abalone shell pendant, and a metal bridle buckle, according to the NAGPRA notice.

For the complete list of 181 agencies go to:

BIA collections were found in poor condition

In its BIA Museum Program management report, the BIA says it has not pressed the non-BIA facilities for inventories of BIA collections -- because they might demand funds to do this, or demand the removal of all items immediately. 

The BIA reports that some of the facilities stored the BIA Museum Collections in substandard conditions.

The Arizona State University’s Center for Archaeology and Society in Tempe received a poor rating.

Receiving only a "fair" rating, as opposed to "good," for the conditions of BIA collections: New York State Museum in Albany, New York; South Dakota State Historical Society's Archaeological Research Center in Rapid City, South Dakota; and Brigham Young University's Museum of Peoples and Cultures in Provo, Utah.

The BIA Museum Program: Non-BIA Facilities

The following is the list of non-BIA facilities holding vast amounts of the BIA Museum Collection, as revealed in the BIA Museum Collection's management report. The list includes additional information from NAGPRA notices and ProPublica's database. NAGPRA items are human remains and funeral objects -- precious items from the lives of those who have passed -- and stolen from their burial places.

Arizona State Museum, at the University of Arizona in Tucson, has the largest collection of
items of the BIA Museum Collection.

►The Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona in Tucson, houses 1,551 cubic feet and 44,397 lots of BIA archeological collections, 150 linear feet of archives, and more than 18,000 photos. It has NAGPRA items. The museum has 2,400 human remains that it has not made available for return. The majority of more than four thousand human remains that the museum made available for return are O'odham and O'otham -- from Tohono O'odham, Gila River, Salt River and Ak-Chin, according to ProPublica.

► The Arizona State University in Tempe, in the Phoenix Valley, houses an estimated 300 cubic feet of BIA archeological objects, and an unknown amount of associated documentation. There are NAGPRA items.

► The Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles houses BIA collections that were transferred from the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, currently estimated at more than 11,174 objects, an unknown amount of archives, and NAGPRA items.

► The Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico in Albuquerque,  has an estimated 400 cubic feet of BIA archeological materials and 72 linear feet of associated documentation.

Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe

► The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, New Mexico, houses more than 1,855 cubic feet of BIA archeological materials, 30 linear feet of associated documentation, and NAGPRA items.

► The Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, Arizona, houses more than 500 cubic feet of BIA archeological materials, 14.5 linear feet of associated documentation, more than 5,700 photographic images, and items subject to NAGPRA.

► Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff houses 422 objects, 637 bags, and five boxes of BIA archeological materials and approximately two linear feet of associated documentation. In early 2018, NAU became aware of an additional 25 cubic feet of materials that were removed during NAU archeological field schools, including NAGPRA items.

► The San Bernardino State Museum in California houses an estimated 12 cubic feet of archeological materials and approximately nine linear inches of associated documentation.

South Dakota State Historical Society

► South Dakota State Historical Society's Archaeological Research Center houses more than 7,100 BIA archeological objects and 13 linear feet of associated documentation. Newly identified NAGPRA items were documented by the BIA. In 2019, the South Dakota Society made human remains, including a group of young adults in Marshall County, available to be returned to the Sisseston-Wahpeton in South Dakota, according to the NAGPRA notice.

► Southern Illinois University, Center for Archaeological Investigations in Carbondale houses an estimated 2,351 cubic feet of BIA archeological materials and 148 linear feet of associated documentation as well as NAGPRA items. It has several million artifacts from Black Mesa removed by Peabody Coal's mining, during 16 years of grave robbing. It was one of five museums that held Navajo and Hopi ancestors' remains before reburial.

► Southern Utah University houses 30,784 BIA archeological objects and four linear feet of associated documentation.

► The University of Arizona, Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research (LTRR), advised that there were tree ring cores/wood specimens from several bureaus housed at LTRR.

► The University of Colorado Museum of Natural History houses more than 8,280 BIA archeological objects and an undetermined amount of associated documentation.

The University of Idaho, Alfred W. Bowers Laboratory of Anthropology
Crabtree flint-making collection

► The University of Idaho, Alfred W. Bowers Laboratory of Anthropology in Moscow, Idaho, houses more than 157 cubic feet of BIA archeological materials and more than nine linear feet of Archives. It has eight human remains that have not been made available for return. It has made 36 human remains available for return, according to ProPublica.

University of Kansas Natural History Museum

► The University of Kansas Natural History Museum houses more than 175 cubic feet of BIA archeological materials and approximately 7.5 linear feet of associated documentation.

(Above) Boxes of artifacts at the National Park Service's repository near downtown Tucson. Between 1931 and 1990, the National Park Service removed 303 sets of human remains and associated funerary objects from Canyon de Chelly National Monument, a sacred site on the Navajo Nation, according to the federal lawsuit filed by the Navajo Nation. The ancestors' remains were harbored at this facility, the Western Archaeological and Conservation Center.

► The Western Archaeological and Conservation Center in Tucson, a National Park Service repository, houses an estimated 100,000 BIA archeological objects and an unknown amount of associated documentation … Faunal experts have been assessing the collections for additional human remains and updating NAGPRA inventories. BIA entered into a second inter-agency agreement for WACC conservators to assess and stabilize a number of ceramic vessels owned by the BIA and housed at the Huhugam Heritage Center of Gila River Pee Posh (Maricopa) and Akimel O'otham Community, located south of Phoenix in Chandler, Arizona.



The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 and the regulations (43 CFR Part 10) that allow for its implementation address the rights of lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations (parties with standing) to Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony (cultural items). The statute requires Federal agencies and museums to provide information about Native American cultural items to parties with standing and, upon presentation of a valid claim, ensure the item(s) undergo disposition or repatriation.

NAGPRA requires that Reclamation complete a number of reports and submit them to tribes and the Department of the Interior through the National NAGPRA Program. Source: Bureau of Reclamation

BIA Museums Collections 1906 -- 1979: The Antiquities Act and ARPA

"The majority of the BIA museum collections consist of archeological materials, and their associated documentation, which were removed from Indian lands under Antiquities Act permits (or through unpermitted activities) prior to the enactment of ARPA (Archaeological Resources Protection Act) in 1979.

"ARPA specifically identifies Indian lands separately from Federal lands, and thus collections removed from Indian lands post-ARPA are the responsibility of the tribe or individual landowner. BIA assumes responsibility for Antiquities Act collections in accordance with DOI policy as outlined in the April 22, 1988, letter from the Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks regarding the “Disposition of Archeological Collections Recovered Pursuant to the Antiquities Act of 1906.” 

"Consequently, BIA archeological collections consist only of collections, and associated documentation, recovered from Indian lands between June 8, 1906, and October 31, 1979." -- Source: Bureau of Indian Affairs – Annual Museum Collections Management Summary Report FY 2019

About the author

Brenda Norrell has been a news reporter in Indian country for 40 years, beginning at the Navajo Times during the 18 years that she lived on the Navajo Nation. She was a correspondent for Lakota Times, Associated Press and USA Today. After serving as a longtime staff reporter for Indian Country Today covering the west, she was censored and terminated in 2006 and created Censored News. She has a masters degree in international health.

Article copyright Brenda Norrell, Censored News, may not be used without written permission.

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