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Federal database says Springfield museum has Native remains from central Mass. The museum disagrees.

A National Park Service database lists the remains of more than 90,000 Native people that are still on shelves in universities and museums.

The database — part of a federal program created by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which governs the return of remains to Native tribes — says the Springfield Science Museum still has 25 individuals from central Massachusetts, but the museum disputes this.

Decades ago, in the late 1800s and well into the 1900s, museums, colleges, libraries and historical societies collected the remains — the bones — of Native people. Some were dug up on purpose by archaeologists or amateur collectors. Others were unearthed by farmers plowing a field or developers excavating a site.

NAGPRA outlines a process to return Native ancestors, said Shannon O'Loughlin, CEO and attorney with the Association on American Indian Affairs.

“It provides a simple administrative procedure for institutions to follow to return stolen property and Native bodies that were looted without the consent of their Native nation,” she said.

In one of the first steps, a museum informs regulators about what's in their collection. That is entered into the federal database.

Two years ago, NEPM contacted all of the institutions listed in the database that still had remains of Native people unearthed in western and central Massachusetts. One museum was starting to consult with Native tribes; another planned to. A third had a new curator who didn’t know her museum had human remains until we contacted them.

There was also the Springfield Science Museum.

Ryan Wheeler, director of the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology in Andover, has worked on the repatriation of hundreds of Native ancestors.

In a recent interview, Wheeler pointed out what’s entered in the database under the Springfield Science Museum.

"There’s two entries here for Massachusetts both for Worcester County. One reporting 23 people. And another reporting two people," Wheeler said.

The NAGPRA inventory lists Native American human remains at the Springfield Science Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts, as of March 13, 2024.
Nancy Eve Cohen
The NAGPRA inventory lists Native American human remains at the Springfield Science Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts, as of March 13, 2024.

That's a total of 25 at the Springfield Science Museum from Massachusetts who have not been returned to tribes, according to the database.

Wheeler also has access to an older database that is no longer public. It has more detail about the specific sites where the remains of the 25 people were dug up.

“Removed from the site by somebody named B. D. Keith in the 1960s or before, donated to the Springfield Science Museum in 1984. It's an early Woodland site which is 1000 to 200 BC, according to this information," Wheeler read from the database.

Confusion over Native remains

Springfield Museums, which owns the science museum, declined to be interviewed for this story. But in a January 2022 interview, Vice President Heather Haskell-Burns did address this topic.

"The number that you have, I think, is incorrect," she said.

Haskell-Burns said it has been “very important” to the entire museum staff to “return the human remains.” And she believed the 25 individuals were returned a few years earlier.

“There was a transfer to the Stockbridge-Munsee of many of those remains that you just mentioned — in 2016, I believe,” she said.

About a year later, on January 18, 2023, Haskell-Burns confirmed this in an email.

"Upon further investigation after our discussion last year, I determined that we do not hold any human remains from Massachusetts and that the Museums had repatriated the remains of the 25 individuals from Worcester County in 2016," Haskell-Burns wrote.

The Springfield Museum sent NEPM a copy of an article from the Mohican News, published by the Stockbridge-Munsee, to show the remains have been repatriated.

The article reported that on September 22, 2016 tribal members reburied the remains of 84 ancestors from the Springfield Museums.

That corresponds to a federal notice from the Springfield Museum describing 84 ancestors — but they were from Hampshire and Hampden counties, and unknown sites in Massachusetts — not Worcester County.

The tribe itself confirms that reburial did not include ancestors from Worcester County.

Bonney Hartley, the Stockbridge-Munsee tribal historic preservation manager, said in an emailed statement that Worcester County "is outside of Stockbridge-Munsee Community’s cultural area of interest, so we do not have further information regarding [the Worcester County remains], except to say that they were not included in the Notice or the 2016 reburial."

Cheryll Toney Holley, a leader from another tribe, the Hassanamisco Band of the Nipmuc Nation, said in an email she believes the ancestors from Worcester were included in a larger reburial in 2016, but she did not personally have any related paperwork.

Holley referred NEPM to an official from the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), which was involved in that repatriation effort as a federally recognized tribe. The official did not answer our requests for information.

And as far as the federal database is concerned, those remains are still with the Springfield Science Museum.

"If there's a discrepancy, it's a discrepancy in the information the museum shared with us," said Melanie O'Brien, manager of the national NAGPRA program.

O'Brien said the database is based on information museums submit, much of it from the 1990s.

The process museums must follow

The law requires a paper trail. After a museum submits a list of their collection that falls under NAGPRA, it’s entered into the database. The museum is then supposed to consult with tribes to determine which Native nations the ancestral remains are affiliated with.

Then, Shannon O’Loughlin said the museum would publish a notice in the federal register.

"So, it's a notice to  the world and a notice to Native Nations that now is the time to request repatriation," she said, "that will ensue the actual physical repatriation process." 

But there is no notice from the Springfield Museums in the federal register about the 25 Native ancestors from Worcester County.

Besides the notice, Wheeler said it's standard practice by museums to document when something leaves their collection. In the case of human remains, it often includes signatures.

"There would be a list and it would be clear what date, who was present. Oftentimes people sign from the museum and the tribe, to show that the actual repatriation had occurred," he said.

Wheeler said museums would also update catalog records to indicate individuals were repatriated on a certain date, referencing the notice in the federal register. He said that documentation can be critical years later, after the person who handled the repatriation leaves or retires.

'We'll make mistakes every once in a while'

O'Loughlin said it's possible the discrepancy between what’s in the database — and what the museum says it has — is just an oversight.

"I don't believe this is done out of any ill intent. This is a human process. And when there's human processes, we'll make mistakes every once in a while," O'Loughlin said.

That’s especially true with staff turnover at museums — when the point person leaves or retires.

In an email NEPM obtained in a public records request, dated February 3, 2023, the Springfield Museums told federal officials that its science curator, who handled its NAGPRA work, left the museum a few years ago. At that time, the email said, the museum’s "director of collections was told that everything that we had in our collections that should be returned to Tribes was returned."

A few days later, the museum wrote the NAGPRA office again, saying it would "discuss internally next steps regarding the Worcester ancestral remains and funerary objects that are no longer in our possession based on the three options," that the office had previously outlined for the museum.

The response to NEPM's public records request did not include any information about the options.

In an interview NAGPRA's O'Brien said, "one option for any museum is to publish a Notice of Inventory Completion."

That would include a brief description of the human remains, a list of tribes the museum consulted with, and what was decided about the cultural affiliation of the ancestors.

O'Brien said the NAGPRA program will maintain the database listing the 25 individuals until the museum provides information about what happened to them or publishes a notice in the federal register.

"I think, for the museum, it's incumbent upon them to try to resolve the question," O'Brien said. "If they do not have those 25 individuals in their collection, they have a responsibility to figure out what happened to those 25 individuals."

The museum said they were returned, but so far, there's no public record of it.

Disclosure: Springfield Museums is a financial supporter of NEPM. Our newsroom operates independently of the station’s fundraising department.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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