‘Bone dust in my skin’: How a legacy of racism has left nearly 117,000 native ancestors not at rest

The front exterior of the Berkshire Museum is one of six institutions in central and western Massachusetts that -- according to a government inventory -- still have the remains of native people not yet repatriated. The museum is starting the process of repatriation.

The Berkshire Museum is one of six institutions in central and western Massachusetts that — according to a government inventory — still have the remains of native people not yet repatriated. The museum is starting the process of repatriation. (Nancy Eve Cohen/NEPM)

For centuries, archeologists and amateur collectors looted Native American graves in Massachusetts and across the country, taking the remains of people — and the objects that were buried with them. Sometimes farmers or developers unearthed people unintentionally. They were given to museums, universities and even libraries.

Institutions have reported to the government they have the remains of nearly 117,000 people.

That includes about 60 who were dug up in central and western Massachusetts. It’s taking a long time to get them home.

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‘It’s a responsibility to carry that on’

When Jim Peters was growing up on Cape Cod decades ago, the local sheriff contacted his father, a Mashpee police officer and tribal leader known as “Slow Turtle.” The sheriff had made a discovery.

“He was finding native remains in different town halls and libraries and other places. And they started going through the process of reburying them. He would come and drag me along, say, ‘I got something for you to do!’ And that started our process of reburying our ancestors,” Peters recalled.

Peters said native burial sites often had an ocean view, the same places where people wanted to build houses.

“As Cape Cod began to develop,” he said, “our people got displaced more or more, and then no one knew what to do with them or even cared. So they found themselves in different closets and things like that, basements or whatever.”

Peters is a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and executive director of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs. He said he has helped rebury hundreds of people. The experience has changed him.

“Once I had that bone dust in my skin, it’s something that stuck with me ever since. It’s made an impact on my life,” Peters said. “It’s a responsibility to carry that on.”

He said it’s important to take his ancestors out of adverse settings and return them to the earth.

Bettina Washington, the cultural director of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), said reburying is not easy.

“It takes a lot out of you. You need to be well prepared for it. And you need to take care of yourself, before and after,” Washington said. “And, at the same time, it’s gratifying, to make sure your ancestors are now safe.”

There are many more native ancestors who are still today in museums and schools. When looters dug them up, they were seen as specimens, not as human beings. Or they were viewed as objects of racist scientific research — now debunked — that purported to look at innate differences between peoples.

‘Oftentimes, museums will make it very difficult’

The Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians is also focused on getting ancestors back. For historic preservation manager Bonney Hartley, it’s a spiritual obligation.

“So many people, all these ancestors are not at rest,” Hartley said in an interview recorded in the fall of 2020. “They’re on these shelves and the road to be able to bring them home can sometimes be incredibly, painfully long.”

Long, in part, because of the NAGPRA process. That’s the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, designed to let tribal nations know where their ancestors are, and to provide a process for bringing them home. It applies to institutions that receive federal funding.

Hartley said when she first started, she expected it would be much easier.

“Oftentimes, museums will make it very difficult and you have to go like fragment by fragment of someone’s body and make the case for why you know that that is directly, culturally affiliated with your nation,” Hartley said. “And if they’re from a long time ago, thousands of years back, then it’s hard to satisfy their criteria sometimes.”

When a museum lists an individual as culturally not affiliated to any tribe, it can stop or slow down the return of ancestors to their people. Sometimes museums don’t have much documentation with remains.

The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield has possession of small bone fragments — the remains of at least two native people, according to Jason Vivori, collections experience manager at the museum. They were donated to the museum probably more than 100 years ago, and are secured in boxes away from the public and staff.

“The notes with them, and these are just little tiny pieces of paper, just list where they were located from Springfield,” Vivori said. “They mention the person who collected them. And they were essentially river washout from an Indian burial ground, is what it says on the label.”

With so little to go on, in the 1990s as part of the NAGPRA process, the museum determined it wasn’t clear which tribe they belonged to.

“But now we’re looking at it and going, ‘No, these clearly belong … we know where they came from. Now it’s just a matter of determining what community they belong to, or if we can’t determine which community, which community is willing to handle affiliating them so that they can take them and rebury them,” Vivori said. “Because otherwise they just end up doing the same thing they’re doing now, just sitting on a shelf.”

Although it’s taken decades, the Berkshire Museum is beginning to organize a consultation with tribes, something the law requires. Vivori said what tribal members have to say is most important.

“To make sure they’re the ones who are really determining what is or isn’t theirs,” Vivori said. “At one point in time, there was much more of a focus that the museum was the final decision on that sort of thing. That’s not so now and certainly not our viewpoint.”  

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