A recent law enables their return for reburial in Illinois. A recent law enables their return for reburial in Illinois.

For centuries, European settlers who sculpted their vision of prosperity reshaped the lives of Native Americans by unearthing their graves upon claiming lands and displacing tribes westward. Now, local American Indians have a newfound hope in Illinois, where a new law promises to expedite the recovery of their ancestral remains from shelves in educational facilities, dusty museum corners, or cultural institutions. Illinois’ latest legislation is expected to fast-track the reburial process in their homeland.

Rafael Wahwasuck, a Potawatomi tribal preservation officer in Kansas, shared his concerns: “I’ve always had this worry because I know that I’m going to university or to a museum… there’s a good possibility that in some basement or some attic somewhere, there are ancestors sitting.” He hopes that this law will help reduce such indignities, knowing that they are working to right the wrongs and care for their forebears in a fitting resting place.

Illinois Updates Human Remains Protection Act

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed the Human Remains Protection Act last month, updating a state law from 1989. It complements a federal law passed a year later, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which mandates the return of human remains, burial artifacts, sacred, and cultural objects wrongfully taken over the past two centuries—either by excavation and bulldozing, experts in archaeology, or unscrupulous profiteers.

This initiative grants the tribes in Illinois the authority to rebury the unearthed remains for the first time, allowing them to choose the states where, almost two centuries ago, the U.S. government forcibly relocated them.

Illinois State Museum, home to approximately 7,000 individuals’ remains, has 1,100 ready to be reunited with their tribes, according to Brooke Morgan, the museum’s curator of anthropology. In total, Illinois could potentially recognize and repatriate around 13,000 individuals who need to be returned to their final resting place.

Illinois: Heritage and Repatriation Challenges

The land has produced everything, from state-wide academic institutions like the Field Museum in Chicago to Southern Illinois University, as well as national wonders such as Cahokia Mounds.

Illinois' Landmark
Illinois’ Landmark

Managing the repatriation program, the National Park Service considers Illinois the fifth-largest repository of human remains in the country. Many of the remains uncovered in Illinois are held by institutions in other states. Nationally, nearly 209,000 individuals’ remains are documented and need to be returned to descendants.

Ethical Challenges in Human Remains Study

Morgan emphasized that the knowledge about past cultures and lives gleaned from the study of human remains is invaluable but must be conducted with ethical awareness. She said, “While much can be learned, it is not without its consequences or potential consequences for modern communities.”

This law also strongly penalizes financial incentives, including disturbing human remains and associated burial objects for display or research purposes. In 1992, when the federal law was enacted during the first three decades of its enforcement in Illinois, repatriation was slow at best.

Illinois Museum’s Repatriation Efforts

In 2020, Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, then-director of the Illinois State Museum, gave her team the mandate to assess the interest of local American Indian tribes in repatriation. Now, the museum is close to repatriating 1,100 individuals’ remains to ten tribes from the Dickson Mounds Holdings, where their ancestors were originally interred. This act has forged strong bonds with affected tribes, who must be consulted for the new state law — the management and transfer of remains between agencies and tribes require meaningful dialogue.

“It can be emotionally taxing,” Morgan said. “It’s knowing that our ancestors were dug up and you’re taking them back to where they were forced to go almost two centuries ago.”

Before the new law, repatriation meant returning remains to tribes that had no other option but to relocate them in the same states from which they were forcibly removed. “One tribe I talked to – the Cherokee, especially – they say it’s like remaking the Trail of Tears,” said legislation sponsor Rep. Mark Walker, a Democrat from Arlington Heights, a Chicago suburb. They were referring to the forced march westward in 1838-39 in which thousands of Cherokees died.

  • Cherokee Ancestral Resting Places

According to Walker, the Cherokee conveyed to him, saying, “Our forebears found their eternal resting place where their hearts desired it to be. And now you’ve dug up their bones, and you’re taking them to where we were forced to go.”

Walker added that negotiators have compiled a list of 30 possible sites for burial. The tribes will ultimately decide which sites to use.

  • Ancestral Repatriation and Respect

Matthew Bassler, a tribal historic preservation officer for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi in Dowagiac, Michigan, noted that the final ceremonies and practices differ from tribe to tribe. In general, he said, it’s crucial to see that ancestors are “returned to Mother Earth,” not just so they can continue their journey in the afterlife but also to remove all sorrows and burdens from their tribe, especially their descendants.

Repatriation comes with expenses, both for the tribes and the state, undoubtedly. The law also provides funding through penalties, primarily for desecration of burial places. Funds are generated by criminalizing the disturbance, collection, cleaning, or illegal possession of remains, as they were for the past centuries.

Bassler concluded, “These human remains, they were never treated like human beings…” “People who have been gone for hundreds of years who are just now being unearthed, or your grandmother who just passed away – we need to treat them all with the utmost respect.”

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