The NSHS recently returned its last ancestral Ponca remains to the tribe for reburial. The objects include skeletal remains and funerary objects mostly from the 1700s and 1800s. All were discovered inadvertently during road and bridge construction projects starting in the 1960s. The repatriation received coverage in the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal Star.
The NSHS plans to have the last of its human remains returned to tribes by next year. Such remains are governed by the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and the Nebraska Unmarked Human Burial Sites and Skeletal Remains Protection Act.
The NSHS has been in the process of returning human remains to the tribes for years, but it takes time to identify and contact the appropriate tribe and make arrangements. And sometimes remains pre-date present-day tribes or can’t be identified with certainty. That difficulty led Congress to revise NAGPRA in recent years to allow unaffiliated remains to be returned based on geography. This change allowed the NSHS and other museums to repatriate the rest of the human remains in their collections.
At the same time, many tribes—including the Ponca—have been designating tribal officers to deal with repatriation issues.
According to state archeologist Rob Bozell, the best thing about the process is the way it has brought different groups together. “We sit down and figure these things out together,” Bozell told the Journal Star. Archeologists can inform tribes about things they’re not aware of and they can inform us of things we’re not aware of. This has been the most positive thing about reparation—working together to solve the problem.”
Last fall, representatives of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe visited the NSHS to pick up ancestral human remains and funerary objects found near Fort Robinson.