Once a Roadside Attraction, a Native Burial Site Nears Repatriation

Once a Roadside Attraction, a Native Burial Site Nears Repatriation

In 1927, on a bluff overlooking the Illinois River Valley, a chiropractor named Don Dickson took a shovel to his family’s farmland in Fulton County, Ill., and uncovered burial mounds dating back eight centuries.

He scooped out the dirt, exposing the open graves of more than 280 Native Americans, many of whom had been buried among their possessions, and began charging admission, making it a roadside tourist stop.

In the decades that followed, the Illinois State Museum turned the site into a full-fledged museum, excavating more than 800 skeletal remains before constructing the building that stands there today. Then, in 1990, Congress passed a law requiring museums to return Native American remains and cultural items they held to the appropriate tribes. In the years after that, the museum closed the exhibit and covered the exposed graves with a cedar floor. But the pace of returns from its collection was slow.

Now, nearly a century after Dickson first began digging, the museum says that it has consulted with tribes regarding the remains of more than 1,300 Native Americans — 286 beneath the cedar floor, the rest removed and kept elsewhere — that are now ready to be repatriated. It is a major step for the Illinois State Museum in addressing its repository of human remains, which is one of the largest in the country.

The repatriation work has taken on greater urgency in recent months, after new federal regulations meant to strengthen the 1990 law, which have put significant pressure on museums to make the remains of the more than 96,000 Native Americans still in the possession of federally funded institutions available to be returned to tribes.

For the Illinois State Museum, that will mean picking up the pace, drastically. In the three decades since the law was passed, the Illinois State Museum had made the remains of fewer than 200 individuals ready to repatriate.

Under the new regulations, institutions have five years to make the rest of the human remains and accompanying funerary objects in their possession accessible to tribes for repatriation; for Illinois, that means addressing the remains of more than 5,800 Native Americans and about 30,000 burial belongings. The process often involves lengthy consultations with multiple Native nations, archival research and curatorial work that can involve going through boxes of funerary objects.

“It’s a daunting task,” said Logan Pappenfort, the curator of anthropology at the Dickson Mounds Museum, which has kept open other exhibits about the history of the land and its inhabitants. “But I think that the core tenets of what we have to do doesn’t change.”

Pappenfort, who is a member of the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma, is part of a younger generation of museum curators who have been at the forefront of rethinking repatriation work by letting tribes lead the decision-making over what should be returned and how.

These practices have been codified by the new federal regulations, which sought to ease some of the hurdles that required tribes to prove that they had claim to remains or objects, and required that institutions ask for consent before exhibiting Native remains or cultural items.

Some of the outcomes of these new rules, which went into effect this year, are already apparent to museum visitors: Anyone visiting the American Museum of Natural History, the Field Museum in Chicago or the Illinois State Museum may have noticed covered cases, obscured while the museums seek approval from tribes to show the items inside.

But one of the most significant parts of the regulations — the five-year deadline — is an invisible clock ticking for institutions like the Illinois State Museum, as they quickly and carefully try to de-accession holdings that have been amassed since the mid-19th century.

“These regulations have lit a fire,” said Brooke Morgan, the anthropology curator at the Illinois State Museum. “They say, ‘You’ve been talking about doing this, you’ve been thinking about doing this — it’s time to actually get it done.’”

About an hour’s drive from the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, the Dickson Mounds branch stands as a relic of a time when Native American remains were commonly put on display.

“There was a lot of profit in going and digging up our ancestors,” said Raphael J. Wahwassuck, a tribal council member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, that has ancestral land in central Illinois. “And Dickson Mounds is just an incredibly amplified example, taken to the extreme.”

But in the 1980s, as Native American activists called attention to the disparate treatment of their ancestors’ graves, public opinion on the exhibition of human remains was shifting.

Sensing a coming reckoning over Dickson Mounds, museum leaders announced in early 1990 that they planned to close the burial site where visitors could peer over a railing into the exposed graves that Dickson and others had dug up. A spotlight would shine on specific individuals, according to an account from the time, pointing out details like the remains of an infant and a woman with arthritis.

Some locals objected furiously to the closure, protesting what they viewed as a loss of history and tourism, and the plan was briefly halted.

More protests followed from Native activists who viewed the exhibit as a desecration of their ancestors, with demonstrators tossing dirt into the pit in a gesture toward reburial. In 1990 Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or, NAGPRA, requiring, for the first time, that museums take stock of the Native remains and cultural items in their possession and repatriate them if there is a reasonable link to a modern-day tribe.

In 1991, Gov. Jim Edgar of Illinois ordered the display of open graves at Dickson Mounds closed.

As the Illinois State Museum embarked on its first major efforts toward repatriation in the 1990s, its curators decided to start with more modern holdings, which often had documentation that could help prove a clear link to a tribe.

But the older holdings — including the Dickson Mounds remains, many of which date back to around 1150 — largely fell by the wayside, as ProPublica first detailed in an investigation last year. For curators, there was a lack of clarity about which modern tribes had claims to holdings dating back to before colonial record-keeping began.

“If we couldn’t define a tribe or a small group of tribes to repatriate to, there was uncertainty as to where they should go,” Robert Warren, who worked on repatriation at the museum in the ’90s, said of the remains.

In 1997 the Illinois State Museum made the remains of about 120 Native Americans and more than 32,000 burial belongings ready for return. But after that, repatriations slowed to a trickle: Before the museum started organizing a new repatriation team in 2018, it had prepared the remains of only 18 more Native Americans for repatriation.

The new team recommitted to repatriation work and prioritized Dickson Mounds, leading to a three-year consultation period between museum staff and officials from a dozen federally recognized tribes with ancestral ties to Illinois.

Now that the museum has made the Dickson Mounds holdings ready for return, the tribes are considering logistics. Wahwassuck, who was involved in the consultation on behalf of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, said the hope is to rebury the fully excavated remains and the thousands of burial belongings — which include ceramic vessels, fishhooks and shell spoons — as close as possible to where they were initially uncovered.

There have been discussions about what to do about the remains in the dug-up graves that are still beneath the heavy cedar floor, which tribal officials consider to be improperly buried because they are not covered by earth.

There is plenty of work left in Illinois. The museum must prepare to return the remains of more than 5,800 Native Americans, many of which were amassed because the institution is the go-to repository in the state for human remains dug up during construction or inadvertently uncovered.

Morgan acknowledges that with the size of the collection and the web of potential tribal affiliations, the Illinois State Museum may have to seek an extension to the five-year deadline, which is permitted in the new regulations if the tribes involved agree.

For now, the museum is looking toward the next site it will to focus on: a 700-year-old cemetery known as Norris Farms No. 36, about two miles up the road from Dickson Mounds. More than 260 skeletal remains were discovered there in the 1980s during a highway expansion, when museum workers were summoned to excavate them to save them from destruction.

As the deadline looms, Morgan envisions putting the Norris Farms No. 36 remains — which have been the subject of extensive scientific study over the decades at the center of a consultation process that also pulls in remains excavated in other parts of Fulton County, which was a magnet for archaeological work in the mid-20th century.

Matthew Bussler, the tribal historic preservation officer for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, one of the tribes involved in the Dickson Mounds consultations, said he has seen the pace of requests mount since the new federal regulations were announced at the end of last year.

The key for tribes, he said, will be to work with one another in groups, allowing them to discuss cases and decide which tribe should take the lead on reburials. “Tribes come to consensus with one another pretty readily, because we all want these ancestors and their belongings out of these institutions,” Bussler said.

That approach is becoming increasingly common as institutions like the Illinois State Museum have become more willing to relinquish some decision-making power over where, exactly, their holdings of Native remains and funerary objects end up.

“We want this to be directed by the tribes,” Pappenfort said. “What the tribes want is what we want.”

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