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News / Northwest

Western Washington University holds Indigenous remains despite federal law, news report says

By Robert Mittendorf, The Bellingham Herald
Published: January 12, 2023, 6:27pm

BELLINGHAM — Some 89 sets of Indigenous people’s remains are being held at Western Washington University, according to an investigation conducted by Pro Publica, a non-profit news organization.

In an article published online Wednesday, Jan. 11, Pro Publica listed several major U.S. museums, universities and other institutions that continue to hold artifacts and human remains despite the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

An interactive feature with the article allows readers to check the status of remains held by U.S. institutions and learn where those remains were obtained and how much of their collections have been returned or offered to their ancestors.

WWU’s tribal liaison Laural Ballew told The Bellingham Herald that the university does hold human remains and cultural items that may be subject to the repatriation act..

“We have been actively working to repatriate all remains and cultural items to their rightful Indigenous communities of origin, which is a goal that falls squarely into our commitment to pursue justice and equity in everything we do as an institution,” Ballew sadi in an email.

“Throughout this ongoing and sensitive process, which requires the careful identification and respectful housing of all human remains, we have been and will continue to work under the close guidance of our tribal partners and regional tribal historical preservation officers.

The Herald has reached out to officials at the Nooksack Tribe and Lummi Nation, but an immediate response was unavailable.

WWU has remains in its collection from Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan counties in Washington state, and also from Tillamook, Ore., according to the Pro Publica report.

Only three sets of remains were made available for return. Artifacts and remains were taken from Lummi Nation, and the Nooksack and Swinomish tribes, according to the report.

No remains were reported in the Whatcom Museum’s collection, according to the report.

“Archaeologists and museum collectors looted Native American remains from ancient homes, graves and places of worship,” Pro Publica’s article said.

“Government and military officials harvested the dead from battlefields and massacre sites. The remains of more than 110,000 Native American, Native Hawaiian and Alaska Natives’ ancestors are still held by museums, universities and federal agencies,” the article said.

Wednesday’s investigative story was part of Pro Publica’s ongoing “Repatriation Project.”

The Herald’s Robert Mittendorf contributed to Pro Publica’s 2016-2019 “Documenting Hate” series of articles that focused on hate crimes and bias incidents as they began to increase both locally and nationwide.