2023 Explanatory Reporting, Medium Newsroom finalist

The Repatriation Project

About the Project

In 1990, Congress passed landmark human rights legislation known as the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act. The law sought to bring about the expeditious return of Native American human remains and objects, much of it looted — often with support of the federal government — during centuries of genocide and displacement of Indigenous people.

Tribes and activists pressed for this injustice to be acknowledged and addressed, and the law was to be a step in that direction. Museums, universities and other federally funded institutions were required, under the law, to identify Native American remains and other items in their collections and contact and consult with descendant communities about the disposition of the remains and items.

Mary Hudetz, Logan Jaffe and Ash Ngu set out to learn why 30-plus years later so much of what the law required was still undone. That reporting, some in partnership with NBC News, found that fewer than half of the 210,000 human remains institutions initially reported holding following the law’s passage had been returned. And 10 institutions and federal agencies — including old and prestigious museums, state-funded universities and the U.S. Interior Department — hold about half of these unreturned human remains.

The core of the reporting is a searchable news app built using data institutions self-reported to the federal government. It identifies where the Native American human remains were originally taken from, where they are held, the percentage that have been made available for repatriation, the tribes that have been notified, and other information allowing comparisons of institutions’ compliance with the law.

The investigation looked at institutions that had been slow to comply with the law to reveal how NAGPRA has been ignored or subverted. These have included stories on the Illinois State Museum, University of California, Berkeley, and Metropolitan Museum of Art.