After 87 Years At Smithsonian, Bones Of Alaska Natives Returned To Bristol Bay About half of the village of Igiugig welcomed the return of 24 men, women and children for burial in their land. It took about two years for the repatriation of the remains to be approved.

After 87 Years At The Smithsonian, Bones Of Alaska Natives Returned And Reburied

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A village in Alaska is one of the latest to rebury human remains that have been studied and stored at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Hundreds of thousands of Native American graves were excavated in the 19th and 20th centuries in the name of research. This year, the National Museum of Natural History has given the remains of 31 people back to five tribes. From member station KDLG in Bristol Bay, Alaska, Avery Lill has that story.


AVERY LILL, BYLINE: On a drizzly fall day, about half the village of Igiugig crowded into the Russian Orthodox church in the center of town. The nave was hazy with incense as the priest talked about healing, rest and the sacredness of graves. In the center of the room sat three handmade coffins carrying the bones of 24 people from the now-abandoned settlement of Kaskanak. Annie Wilson of Igiugig attended the ceremony. She says, the original excavation of these remains was objectionable in Yupik culture.

ANNIE WILSON: We were always taught you don't dig up old bones of anything or anybody. That's their resting place until the good Lord comes someday.

LILL: The remains were unearted 87 years ago by Ales Hrdlicka. He was the head of the Anthropology Department in what is now the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The idea was to study how people originally came to North America and from where. In 1989 and 1990, Congress passed laws that require museums to make remains and funerary objects available to federally recognized tribes. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History held the remains of about 19,000 Native American people. Repatriation is a slow process. After more than eight decades in the museum's collection, Igiugig's ancestors finally returned home.

ALICE ZACKAR: (Spoken in Yupik).

LILL: Eighty-five-year-old Alice Zackar is an Igiugig elder. She speaks her native language, Yupik. Annie Wilson asked her what she thought about the repatriation and interpreted.

WILSON: I guess with everything that's been going on, she's kind of a little bit emotional at the moment. But she feels really honored to have all that taken back down to there.

LILL: Historians estimate that the researcher Hrdlicka unearthed thousands of peoples' remains from across the United States. It took about two years after the village of Igiugig requested remains for the repatriation to be approved. First, the Smithsonian went through the process to determine that this set of remains was from people culturally affiliated with the Igyararmiut, the people of Igiugig. The museum leaned heavily on the work of AlexAnna Salmon. Her family has lived in Igiugig for generations, and she researched the area's history for her master's thesis.

ALEXANNA SALMON: This was a collaborative effort between the Smithsonian and our village, but it was really us telling them that these are ours. This is who we are. And it's not anthropology coming from the other direction telling you who you are and where you came from.

LILL: After the funeral service, the coffins were loaded into a skiff. This time, the remains were accompanied by a different member of the Smithsonian, the director of the National Museum of Natural History, Kirk Johnson. The Smithsonian is known as an institution that collects, but giving history back has become part of its duty in recent decades. He says that it's been important to work with native communities on these repatriations.

KIRK JOHNSON: So when their grandparents or their more recent relatives are actually in museums as collections items, which just doesn't make much sense from a human point of view, there is something that was very unfair that was done here.

LILL: At a site near Kaskanak, a hole was already dug on the hillside overlooking the Kvichak River.


LILL: The priest prayed as the coffins were lowered. Johnson, alongside the Igyararmiut, helped to fill the grave. And soon, only three white crosses in a fresh pile of soil marked it.



LILL: The bones finally laid to rest, the village performed a traditional Yupik dance. Facing east with dance bands held high, they blessed their ancestors and reclaimed two dozen of their people. For NPR News, I'm Avery Lill.

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