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Ohio museums grappling with new guidelines for handling Native American artifacts and remains

covered displays at the Cleveland Museum of Art
Cleveland Museum of Art
At the Cleveland Museum of Art (pictured above), some exhibits have been covered while it's determined if permission is needed to have them on view. Several museums in Ohio, including the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, are acknowledging new federal guidelines on the handling of Native American artifacts and human remains.

Museums in Ohio hold thousands of Native American cultural artifacts and human remains. Last month, federal guidelines were updated to ensure more ethical treatment, and possible repatriation, of those items, prompting varied reactions from institutions in Northeast Ohio.

The Cleveland Museum of Art erected barriers in January around several displays of Native pieces while determining whether permission is needed to have them on view. Human remains are not in the CMA collection.

“I think any Native people will be really happy to hear that they are finally taking steps to enforce the NAGPRA rulings,” said Marie Toledo, an activist and member of the Lake Erie Native American Council board. She’s also on an advisory board for the art museum, which declined to be interviewed for this story.

Leadership at the University of Akron’s Oak Native American Gallery was not immediately available for an interview but is in talks with the private collectors who supplied its 800 artifacts. In Oberlin, the Allen Memorial Art Museum said in a statement that its collection is mostly contemporary works, or works made for the tourist trade, which would not fall under the new rules.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act went into effect in 1990. The new revision gives museums five years to inventory their culturally significant items, contact the tribes to which they once belonged and ask if the items can be displayed or need to be returned.

“It’s like a bad kid that’s been misbehaving all this time and finally someone came and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing? Start taking care of your responsibilities,’” Toledo said.


Holding human remains

A 2023 Department of the Interior report estimated that 10,894 people are still in collections in Ohio and have not been culturally affiliated with any present-day tribe. Only Illinois has more. Nationally, the Ohio History Connection holds the single largest collection, with 7,167 unaffiliated remains. Officials there also declined an interview but said in a statement they’re “discussing a memorandum of agreement with our Tribal Partners to determine their guidelines and preferences for how we should proceed with this work during the specified time period.”

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History has never displayed remains but does hold some in its collection. As part of its decade-long renovation project, director of collections Meghan Strong said they’ve had the chance to be proactive in complying with the new guidance.

“We do house a number of ancestors, and we have always maintained NAGPRA compliance around those,” she said. “Even prior to these new requirements coming out, we were in compliance with those new regulations before they even came into effect.”

That includes listing the remains on the publicly accessible online NAGPRA database. Strong said the museum is also actively consulting tribal groups and honoring repatriation requests, such as one which returned five people’s remains to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in 2021. Building renovations will also create more space for remains, many of which came to the museum decades ago as research materials.

"If they want the remains of their ancestors housed in a certain way, we are prepared for that now, because we have the space to do it," she said.

Once tribes are identified and contacted, they still need to send someone to retrieve their ancestors. Toledo said that can create new challenges.

“They were ceremonially put to rest with no intention of being removed,” she said. “All these nations - that have to take their family and their relatives back and rebury them - have to create new ceremonies to do that, because they don't have ceremonies for that kind of thing. No one does.”

Toledo said she is hopeful that the new rules will compel museums to change their procedures, and not just for Native Americans.

“It's people of color all over the world: African American, Asian, it's not just us,” she said. “There are all kinds of people that are in there kept up in flat files... in drawers.”

The Hamann-Todd Human Osteological Collection

There are about 3,000 non-Native skeletonized individuals at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The people in the Hamann-Todd Human Osteological Collection died in Cleveland between 1910 and 1939. At the time, state law permitted bodies to be donated for scientific study if not claimed within 36 hours of death. The remains were used at Western Reserve University’s medical school, part of today’s Case Western Reserve University. In the 1960s, the collection was relocated to the natural history museum.

George Maus photo from early 20th century
Joel Maus
Anthropologists at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History have been cataloging the collection of 3,000 human remains. In 2022, they connected the family of George Maus with their relative, who had passed away in Cleveland in 1925.

“Over the years, they ceased to be individuals and they sort of became objects and pieces for scientific investigation,” said anthropologist Carlina de la Cova. She’s with the University of South Carolina and has spent more than two decades exploring the complicated history of human remains as people and not just specimens.

“They had become hip bones,” she said. “They had become toe bones. They had become skulls. They had become ribs. They become arm bones to do mathematical analysis, to create an equation, to help a researcher identify someone in the field in terms of their stature, their height, their biological sex.”

Anthropologist Dr. Carlina de la Cova
University of South Carolina College of Arts and Sciences
Anthropologist Dr. Carlina de la Cova is with the University of South Carolina. She's spent more than two decades exploring the complicated history of human remains as people and not just specimens.

On Thursday, de la Cova is in Cleveland speaking about CMNH and its work with the collection.

"How we can ethically engage with these individuals, and how we can start to engage with descending communities?" she said. "How do we do right by these individuals that were ultimately wronged by society?"

Given the time frame of the collection, de la Cova points to three convergent narratives at work: the Great Migration, people who were institutionalized – whether in the justice system or state hospitals – and people who were poor. Often, institutions couldn’t track down relatives in the South within 36 hours, nor could the relatives afford the expense of moving a body and having it buried.

"There's apathetic sentiments towards marginalized 'others' in society during this time period, including people of color, the poor, and the institutional," she said.

The people in the Hamann-Todd collection do not fall under NAGPRA, yet de la Cova sees the law as a blueprint for the ethical handling of remains. At the museum, Dr. Ebeth Sawchuk, assistant curator of human evolution, has been working for two years to “restore the personhood” of the 3,000 skeletons in the collection.

“There is no legislation for osteological collections,” Sawchuk said. “We’re kind of creating our own path here, although of course we are enmeshed in the broader conversations in academia and with other institutions about the way forward.”

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.