New rules being drafted by the Biden administration could speed up the process—which essentially is stuck—for museums and other institutions to return the remains of Native American to their tribes. The government set up a system in 1990, but institutions still have possession of the remains of more than 116,000 Native Americans, the New York Times reports. In nearly every case, the institutions have not been able to connect the remains to a tribe. Regulatory changes could make museums complete identification and streamline repatriation, a process that tribes say gives too much control to the institutions. "The right to protect the graves of your ancestors and relatives is one of the most fundamental human rights on the planet," said Veronica Pasfield, who's involved in the process for Michigan's Bay Mills Indian Community.
Deb Haaland, the first Native American to lead the Interior Department, said changes to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act are overdue. Institutions have complained that identifying the remains' cultural affiliation can be difficult and expensive, saying that remains sometimes appear to be too old to be connected to a present-day tribe. Tribes have argued that, per the Times. "If you know there are human remains from a burial site, and you know their location and age, it's relatively simple to identify what tribe that person is from," Pasfield said. "Not affiliating remains is a way for universities and museums to hold onto what they want to conduct research on." Harvard's Peabody Museum alone has the remains of more than 6,400 Native Americans. A repatriation and reburial in Michigan involving the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe in 2014 was moving, one participant said: "It's a deeply spiritual and emotional thing that comes from the heart." (The law facilitated the reburial of a chief who signed a treaty with the Pilgrims.)