“The Rosa Parks of NAGPRA”

Used with permission, University of Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist

By Alexis Redshaw

In 1971, Maria Pearson (Running Moccasins) would learn shocking information from her husband, John Pearson, pushing her to make changes that would fundamentally impact the art and museum world in their treatment of Indigenous remains and objects. John, an engineer working for the present day Iowa Department of Transportation, learned about construction occurring near the city of Council Bluffs, Iowa, where a highway was to be built through a cemetery. To address the issue of reburial, the State Archeologist team was tasked with relocating those buried in the cemetery; however, not all of the excavated human remains were treated equally in this process. Of the twenty-eight remains found in the cemetery, two were singled out amongst the group. While the twenty-six bodies found of white individuals were reburied in a different cemetery, the remains of an Indigenous woman and her infant were transported to the Office of the State Archeologist for scientific use.

Maria belonged to the Sioux Nation. She was upset and stunned to learn her ancestors’ remains were treated in such a prejudiced and disrespectful way. This news would prompt her to travel to Des Moines, Iowa, arriving in Indigenous regalia to address the governor about the discrimination and mistreatment of Indigenous remains and cultural heritage occurring in her state.

Within Indigenous customs, an individual’s spirit is always connected to the body. In effect, when a buried body is removed from its resting place, the spirit tied to those remains is disturbed, as well. This notion became the root force behind Maria’s successful advocacy in not only getting the Indigenous woman’s and infant’s remains from the construction site reburied but also in developing legislation in Iowa to solidify this standard. She would go on to collaborate with Governor Robert D. Ray and “legislators, archeologists, anthropologists, physical anthropologists, and other tribal members to spur legislation guaranteeing equal treatment of non-Indian and Native American remains.” This initial Iowa law, titled the Iowa Burials Protection Act, served as the premiere legislation around the repatriation of Indigenous People’s remains, leading to the creation of specific cemeteries dedicated to serving as their final resting place.

Maria’s Legacy in Practice

On a larger scale, Maria’s efforts would become “instrumental in the passage of important federal legislation, most recently the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990.” NAGPRA both outlines the rights Indigenous groups have toward Indigenous remains and culturally significant objects, as well as the processes necessary for Federal organizations, including museums, who own these items to disclose and repatriate those that need to be returned. In doing so, NAGPRA emphasizes the honor that all human remains deserve and further facilitates repatriation discussions between Indigenous groups and the institutions that hold Indigenous remains or cultural items. The significance of this Act is only amplified when considering its development at the congressional, federal level. Now, it is more than just one state that is held accountable for the respectful return of Indigenous remains and culturally significant objects. With NAGPRA, the United States has acknowledged the nationwide importance of repatriating these pieces of Indigenous heritage. Every federal institution is held under its purview, showing the scope of change Maria was able to achieve in the United States.

The results of NAGPRA are being seen within the art world today, such as in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (the MDAH). This particular situation involved the repatriation “of 403 sets of Native American remains, as well as 83 lots of funerary items.” Originally taken from the Mississippi Delta and areas near the Yazoo and Yalobusha rivers, these objects and remains were finally returned to the Chickasaw Nation in March of 2021. The Chickasaw ownership stems from the age of the remains, which “range from 750 to 1,800 years old, making them the historic purview of the Chickasaw Nation.” This return process is tied to the legislation of NAGPRA, ensuring that a federally funded institution, like the MDAH, gives Indigenous remains and cultural objects back to the rightful Indigenous owners. In addition, this scenario demonstrates NAGPRA’s emphasis on Indigenous groups having the direct right toward their ancestor’s remains and cultural objects, not the museums or institutions that currently house them. Both this right and the collaboration between MDAH and the Chickasaw Nation are rooted in the federal policy of NAGPRA developed by Congress.

While this poignant example shows the beneficial aspect of NAGPRA, much more needs to be done in the repatriation of Indigenous remains and significant cultural items. As mentioned in the New York Times, as of August of 2021, around one hundred sixteen thousand Indigenous remains are in the collections of various organizations within the United States. Fortunately, the Biden administration and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, an Indigenous individual, are working to simplify the conditions of NAGPRA. The repatriation process can be greatly deterred by the expenses required and the convoluted standards developed by organizations currently owning these items, including the amount of evidence requested to prove which group objects must be repatriated.The current administration can facilitate the process of return for the one hundred sixteen thousand Indigenous ancestors needing a final resting place through regulatory adjustments to expedite repatriation proceedings.

These efforts are all rooted in the actions of Maria Pearson, who has since become known as the “Rosa Parks of NAGPRA” for the spark she ignited by developing legislation in Iowa, and subsequently the entire United States, to protect the remains and objects of Indigenous Peoples. The art and museum world is now confronted with laws of Maria’s legacy, as seen with the example of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. In the future, Maria’s legacy will live on as greater efforts are taken to repatriate those items belonging to the Indigneous Peoples of the United States.

About the Author:

Alexis Redshaw is a senior at the University of Iowa studying ethics and public policy on the pre-law track with minors in art history and philosophy. Alexis is interested in pursuing a career in art law and working with issues around provenance and forgery, as well as advocating for artists in their navigation of the legal world. She is the Center for Art Law’s Undergraduate Intern for the Fall 2021 term.


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