Opinion Articles

Repatriating histories: a call for global policies on the return of human remains

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There are skeletons in the closet. Real ones. The remains of Indigenous peoples from around the world were collected by colonial agents and brought back to the metropoles to be studied, classified, and displayed. This process lasted for centuries, scattering human remains across the globe. The dispersion multiplied as remains were often literally taken in parts, as was done with the collecting of skulls. Body parts, either dug from gravesites or taken following acts of violence, were gathered by academics on fieldwork. Simultaneously soldiers and settlers took human remains as souvenirs during waves of state-sanctioned frontier violence. In order to justify colonial expansion, racial science was developed, which in turn sought body parts as ‘specimens’ from colonial spaces. In short, the mass proliferation of unlawful collections of human remains and their global spread stemmed directly and indirectly from colonial history.

Human remains were catalogued and tested under dubious scientific methods, then largely forgotten in universities, research faculties, museums, in the homes of private collectors, and even in pubs. In recent years, however, the growing movement to repatriate these remains has placed holding institutions under increased pressure. Yet current guiding policies are systematically flawed. Returning these remains involves navigating a quagmire of issues, each specific to the country where these bones are currently housed. Current repatriation policies place the onus directly on the victims but leave Indigenous people out of policy-making processes.

It is the descendants, whose ancestors’ bones lie inside the collection closets or in display cases, who must navigate foreign legal channels and create localised public pressure from the outside. There is no global and universal policy that acknowledges a problematic colonial history. Current policies vary widely from country to country.

In the United States, American Indian and Native Hawai’ian groups can use the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), but only in cases where ‘cultural affiliation’ can be proven to establish a relationship, traced through historical records. But violent experiences of colonialism frequently severed the connections between bands, groups, nations, and tribes. Genealogies have been lost and connections questioned.

In the UK, Indigenous groups can use the 2004 Human Tissue Act or the 2006 Human Tissue (Scotland) Act to task museums and academic institutions to return human remains. These acts stop recent acquisition in the wake of the Alder Hey scandal. But historical Indigenous repatriation issues are unresolved. Once again, requests must come from a formal and ‘legitimate’ government agency. This would exclude, for instance, leaders of First Nations in Canada, as the crown recognises the Canadian government as the state, not the sovereign Indigenous nations. Thus Indigenous communities in settler dominions have to broker exchanges between governments as third parties.

The depositories of human remains in British Universities have undergone a recent self-evaluation, drawing on the 2005 Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums published by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). In 2006 the University of Oxford issued a report citing that its collections should remain intact in order to benefit future generations worldwide. While it conceded that repatriation claims could be made on a case-by-case basis, as usual these claims have to be grounded with provable genealogical linkages and through national governments. The British Museum and University of Cambridge came to similar conclusions. Body parts less than 100 years old can only be returned where direct genealogical descendents are verified. In cases where the collected remains of living people are 300 or more years old, repatriation is unlikely to ever occur as the historical continuity between Indigenous groups ‘can no longer be proven’.

These arbitrary time limits and failure to acknowledge contexts of violence are no longer acceptable. The time for robust universal policies has arrived. The solution to the repatriation dilemma lies in creating policies under international law (as human remains so often crossed multiple geographic borders) guided by history and inclusive of Indigenous perspectives and identity. A new global policy should include recognition of oral traditions and connected modes of kinship, and should incorporate the ability of Indigenous groups to advocate repatriation claims on their own behalf without involving national governments. In instances where direct genealogies have disappeared, local aboriginal groups should be able to speak on behalf of these remains.

Critically, the policy framework already exists. Article 2 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights has established rights and freedoms irrespective of a group’s international status and autonomy. The 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) established a customary norm under article 12, section 1, where repatriation of human remains should be conducted through fair and open policies developed in partnership with Indigenous people. In an era of populism, codifying UNDRIP as a binding contract that supersedes and thus circumvents the continuation of colonial policies seems politically impossible. Instead, universities, museums, and local government charters need to replicate the language of UNDRIP’s article 12 into their own individual repatriation polices. These guidelines should also allow for independent research agencies to create publicly available databases that inventory the human remains in collections, their national origins, and the method by which these remains were acquired. The time has come to give Indigenous agents the keys to open the closets and bring their people home.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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