Low staffing, space crunch hobble UA state museum’s repatriation work

This story is part of a project produced by graduate students at Cronkite News and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University, in partnership with ICT.

In early February, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawai’i, took
to the Senate floor to lambast 70 universities and museums for failing
to return tens of thousands of Indigenous human remains and artifacts to
the Native American tribes from which they were taken.

Schatz called the institutions the foremost offenders of the Native
American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known as NAGPRA, and
accused them of having “done everything in their power to obstruct and
obfuscate when confronted about their collections.”

One of the institutions Schatz singled out was the University of Arizona.

is not morally ambiguous,” Schatz said. “There is nothing to ponder
here. The fact is these items do not belong in museums and universities,
or to science or academia. They belong to the Native people from which
they came.”

It was not the first time the staff at the university’s Arizona State
Museum, known as ASM, faced public criticism for its slow repatriation
efforts. In early 2023, the University of Arizona was included in The Repatriation Project,
a ProPublica series that highlighted the lack of progress in the
repatriation of Native American remains and funerary objects.

News and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona
State University examined ASM’s record and found that:

  • The museum’s budget doesn’t fund enough staff for the
    labor-intensive work that repatriation requires, especially given the
    museum’s vast holdings of Native American remains and artifacts and the
    legal responsibility it has as Arizona’s archaeological repository.
  • The
    museum has been in desperate need of more space to do its repatriation
    work, but the university and the Arizona Board of Regents, the
    decision-maker for university resources, has failed to implement
    promised improvements, according to records and interviews.
  • Without adequate resources of its own, the museum has relied on
    federal grants, relationships with federal agencies and private
    donations to accomplish its repatriation work. These efforts have been
    time-consuming but successful in repatriating large numbers of Native
    American remains and artifacts, according to records journalists

The investigation also found the museum has been
successful in fostering meaningful dialogue and consultation with
Arizona tribes, a central goal of NAGPRA.

The museum created a Native American advisory board in the late 1980s
that has helped guide its repatriation work. The board has supported
the museum’s slow, methodical approach to repatriation, even at the
expense of its compliance with NAGPRA.

The museum acknowledges
that it is still not compliant with the repatriation timelines NAGPRA
set forth in 1990 and won’t be until 2030.

Jim Watson, the museum’s associate director who oversees the
repatriation office, calls the museum “willingly noncompliant,” but not
“maliciously noncompliant.”

“We think that we’re doing a more
ethically, tribal-centered approach to repatriation,” Watson said.
“We’re asking the tribes what they want and how they want us to do it.
So, it creates a situation where we’re noncompliant with federal law,
but it’s what the tribes are asking us to do.”

The museum’s collections

State Museum was founded in 1893 when Arizona was still a territory, on
land that was home to the O’odham and Yaqui people.

Over the
decades, the museum grew into the largest anthropological museum in the
Southwest, with world-class collections of Native American pottery and

Among them, however, are Indigenous human remains,
funerary artifacts and other items taken from archaeological digs and
construction projects that disturbed them. Some were donated from
private collections. In 2023, the museum told the National Park Service
that its collections subject to repatriation potentially included
cultural affiliation to more than 250 tribes.

In 1990, the year NAGPRA was enacted, the museum held the remains of
more than 7,700 ancestors and nearly 92,000 artifacts that were buried
with them, according to Watson.

In NAGPRA’s first years, the
museum began repatriating artifacts and sacred objects that were not
associated with Native American burials to tribes, according to
documents from the Federal Register.

The first year the museum notified tribes that it was ready to
repatriate ancestors came in 2004, 14 years after NAGPRA’s passage,
according to federal records.

The museum’s repatriation of remains and burial artifacts increased steadily after that and escalated in the 2010s.

2004 to 2023, the museum made the remains of more than 2,500 ancestors
and about 34,000 burial artifacts available for tribes to take home,
according to park service records. Some of the repatriations were to
Arizona tribes.

As of May, the park service counted about 2,700 remains in the
museum’s collections that have yet to be made available for
repatriation, though the museum said that figure is closer to 1,842 and
that it’s working with the agency to reconcile the figures.

The museum is also working with several federal agencies to
facilitate the repatriation of remains that are in the legal control of
the federal government but housed at the museum. Those collections
include the remains of more than 1,000 ancestors and more than 14,000
funerary objects held by agencies including the Bureau of Indian
Affairs, the National Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

the direction of tribes, the museum staff tries to repatriate items in
large groups that reunite the remains of ancestors with the objects they
were buried with. The remains and objects are then reunited with other
remains and objects that were taken from the same burial site.

The process requires space, funding and staff, and the museum has been chronically short on all three.

‘Very heavy work’

to Watson and the museum’s website, the University of Arizona funds
about 40 percent of the museum’s budget, mainly for salaries. The money
pays for a full-time repatriation coordinator and an assistant. Other
museum staff, such as Watson and the head of collections, assist in
repatriation as part of their job duties.

The museum also has one staff position fully funded by a National
Forest Service grant to help facilitate repatriation of federal agency

Staff cuts and turnover in recent years have affected repatriation work, Watson said.

very heavy work and it’s not rewarding in the sense that a lot of
people think it would be,” said Cristin Lucas, the museum’s repatriation
coordinator. “It’s also about minimizing the trauma for the tribes that
you’re dealing with. I think that that heavy stress load gets to
people; it’s a topic that comes up a lot in repatriation.”

Repatriation staff mostly rely on private donations and federal
grants to do repatriation work, but those dollars don’t begin to cover
the costs, Watson said.

The museum has received more than a
half-million dollars in NAGPRA grants from the federal government since
1999. Three of those grants have come in amounts of just $15,000, which
Watson says isn’t enough to fund even one staff position for a quarter
of a year.

“So, to do what we do with the federal collections with a NAGPRA grant, it’s impossible,” Watson said.

on the federal agencies’ collections takes time away from work on the
museum’s own collections, contributing to its noncompliant status, Lucas

“We try to do two big repatriations per year, one for a
federal agency and one for ASM,” Lucas said. “If we were only working on
ASM’s collections, that would go a lot faster, but we are helping with a
lot of collections for other institutions and so it is also our
responsibility to work with them to get those collections returned.”

For this story, the museum made its staff who work on repatriation
and NAGPRA compliance available for interviews and gave reporters a tour
of the museum that included step-by-step explanations of the
repatriation process.

According to Watson, staff also assembled
thousands of pages of budget and financial records for a Feb. 5 public
records request from Cronkite News and the Howard Center and turned them
over to the university’s public records office for review.

That office did not provide the documents by publication deadline.

Aging facilities and unmet needs

state law, the Arizona State Museum is the state’s archaeological
repository and the destination for artifacts discovered on state land.
Each year, its collections grow by about 1,000 cubic feet, or roughly
the size of a small bedroom.

In a letter sent to stakeholders on
April 8, the museum said it was officially out of repository space,
meaning it could longer accept items of historical significance to the

ASM officials saw the space crunch coming.

Over a decade ago,
staff at the museum began asking the university for an offsite storage
facility, Watson said, and have even fundraised over $1 million to
facilitate the purchase of a building.

According to budget documents from the Arizona Board of Regents, a
new artifact storage facility is in the “early planning stages” and
isn’t scheduled to be completed until sometime between 2026 and 2028.

“There’s been at least three occasions where they sort of started the
planning process and then it’s fallen through,” Watson said. “So, it’s
really been frustrating for us.”

Museum staff have also been
waiting for a major renovation to the museum’s main building, which was
originally constructed in 1927 to serve as the university’s library.

Those renovations, projected to cost $30 million, have been listed on
the university’s capital improvement plan since at least 2015. It
wasn’t until 2022 that the university performed a design review of the
building to begin formal planning, according to records.

renovations will address “long overdue upgrades” to the building’s
structure, architecture and internal systems, according to budget

Both the lack of space and the overdue renovations impact the staff’s
ability to facilitate repatriations under NAGPRA, Watson said. An
additional storage building and renovations would allow the museum more
space to prepare human remains and funerary objects for repatriation to

“If we were able to move all those collections to off-site
storage, we would have unlimited space to facilitate repatriation,”
Watson said. “All of that space that is currently filled with boxes, we
could fill with rehousing individuals.”

Watson said he’s not getting his hopes up for a new storage facility
anytime soon as the university faces a $162 million budget shortfall
this year caused by “accelerated spending.” He said museum staff haven’t
heard any updates, but he assumes the project is on hold for now.

Zak, a university spokesperson, acknowledged in a statement that the
museum is facing a serious space crunch that is impacting its work.

“This month the interim Senior Vice President for Research provided a
temporary solution for space that allows the Arizona State Museum Staff
to resume intaking collections and also provides space in our current
buildings to complete the staging and packing of repatriations,” Zak

A spokesperson for the Arizona Board of Regents did not provide a comment after multiple requests.

Decades of tribal consultations

current staffing levels and space availability, the museum does not
expect to be compliant with NAGPRA until 2030, 40 years after the law
was passed. But the museum has won tribal support for its compliance
timeline thanks to decades of regular consultations with Indigenous

Several years before NAGPRA became law, the museum established an
advisory board that became known as the Southwest Native Nations
Advisory Board to help guide its work with Native Americans.

board is composed of tribal historic preservation officers from
Arizona’s 22 federally recognized tribes, and advises the museum on
public displays of Native American artifacts and the repatriation of
Indigenous remains and objects.

“The board provides a space for individual concerns and issues to be
brought up,” said Edward Jolie, associate curator of ethnology at the
museum and a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma.

The board meets one or more times a year.

body became important because in a few years after NAGPRA was passed,
we realized that it could also be useful as an advisory board to help us
understand how to better approach our repatriation process,” Watson

Watson credited the board with helping the museum adopt a “tribally
centered” approach to repatriation that seeks to make geographic
connections between its collections and the ancestors of local
Indigenous communities that inhabit the area.

“It was really trying to draw a direct line from groups in the past to potential descendant communities today,” he said.

Since the 1980s, the museum has completed more than 80 repatriations
of Native American remains or artifacts, or a combination of both.

2022, the museum sought out the advisory board for advice on how to
proceed with the repatriation of the remaining collections in its

The nine tribes in attendance unanimously directed the museum to
adopt a repatriation timeline that would put it out of compliance with
NAGPRA but ensure that remains and artifacts repatriated to the tribes
were fully inventoried and documented.

The tribal representatives
told museum officials it was important to them that all remains and
items from a collection come to them at one time and that the tribes did
not have the capacity to accept several large-scale transfers.

“I think it was a good idea that the Arizona State Museum had to get
this agreement with the tribes based on their knowledge,” said Ramon
Riley, the NAGPRA representative with the White Mountain Apache Tribe,
who participated in the meeting. “That’s how we repatriated a lot of
objects at the Arizona State Museum.”

Repatriation: Remains come home

Wayne Lomayestewa, the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office research
assistant and NAGPRA coordinator, served on the advisory board in 1998
and was the president for one year. As a cultural practitioner, he
understands how important representation is to facilitate the return of
the tribe’s ancestors.

When a repatriation is fulfilled by an institution or university, the
Hopi will determine where the human remains will be reburied, he said.

Pueblo ancestors went all throughout the Southwest, and when we look at
the records where they were excavated, we try to find a place as close
as possible to the site or area where they were excavated and reinter
them in that area,” Lomayestewa said.

The traditional ceremony of
reburial may be unchanged from the time the individuals were excavated.
The Hopi cultural preservation officer works with tribal elders familiar
with this process to carry out the duty to rebury their ancestors, he

“There are a lot of bones, like individuals who are just in
fragments,” he said. “So, we try to put them in one by one, side by side
to each other in the same way as they were a very long time ago.”

his knowledge, institutions have repatriated more than 8,000 human
remains throughout the Southwest that are culturally affiliated with the
Hopi and Pueblo tribes.

Being part of the reburial process for excavated remains and
reinterring them with a traditional ceremony can be emotional, said
Jacqueline Zillioux, a member of the Gila River Indian Community and
cultural practitioner.

“We prepare them for burial under a certain
way, we do the preparation a certain way, and we prepare ourselves to
handle the remains,” Zillioux said. “As soon as you see all the bones
and the artifacts, it just hits you.”

Without repatriation, she said, a part of her community’s history
would be missing because ancestors contain information about the past.
The artifacts associated with them – from pottery shards to etched
shells to grinding stones – offer a glimpse into the lives of those who
came before, she said.

For Jolie, the museum’s associate curator
from the Muskogee tribe, repatriation under NAGPRA is an opportunity to
build relationships with Indigenous communities and serves as a form of
healing and dialogue.

“The law is the starting point,” Jolie said. “It’s like the bare
minimum for what we should be doing and if we want to be good,
compassionate human beings.”

Moments of repatriation also
resurrect the historical injustices that affected the ancestors – and
the individuals who worked to right the wrongs of policies that harmed
them, said Riley, in an interview on the White Mountain Apache’s tribal

“When you work with NAGPRA materials, artifacts and human remains, it
just brings you through the trauma – historical trauma,” he said.

the past, the staff participated in a repatriation with the White
Mountain Apache Tribe, helping unload boxes of remains and shoveling
dirt for the reburial, according to Riley.

Two years ago, the museum was involved in the repatriation of Hopi
remains on the lands of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, according to
Stewart Koyiyumptewa, Hopi Cultural Preservation Office director.

For tribes, such returns bring conflicted emotions.

“When you go through this process, bringing it back, it makes you feel good and it makes you feel sad doing it,” Riley said.

But for the White Mountain Apache and the two other Apache tribes Riley works with, the return of ancestors also brings relief.

“I know all three tribes feel a lot better that they’re finally home and at rest in a place where they came from,” Riley said.

“They should have never been taken in the first place.”