Lilly Hochhauser

Wesleyan’s Changing Relationship with the Ancestors in our Control

NAGPRA was passed in 1990 after almost 100 years of indigenous advocacy. Since the 1880’s Indgnous people have fought for the right to rebury their stolen Ancestors. However, for almost 100 years there was no legal recourse for Tribes or Hawaiian Organizations. This does not mean that Institutions like Museums or universities were not allowed to return objects, but rather there was no legal framework that required institutions to do so. 

But why did museums acquire Ancestors in the first place? In the 1800s and early 1900s white supremacy and settler colonialism objectified  Indigeneity. This can be seen in the narrative of the ‘’savage native” and the “vanishing Indian”. 


These narratives culminated in Indigenous burial sites being viewed as “resources” from which to gather data on and preserve a “vanishing” race instead of a place that should be treated with reverence. An example of this objectification is that once a burial site was discovered and the collector, archaeologist, or anthropologist got permission from the present day land owner to excavate the property, they would quickly dig up and sell Ancestors to museums, treating them as objects instead of people. This objectification is reflected in museums’ display and treatment of Ancestors in addition to their historical unwillingness to return them to their direct lineal descedants or Tribal communities. 

Multicolor dark red background with whit text reading MIssing Matoaka the True story of Pocahontas. with white horizontally framing the text.
Lauren DeLeary and Derek Blais, two Indigenous creators, aim to combat harmful narratives about Indigenous people through their alternative audio track for the Disney movie Pocahontas. In their audio, they describe the true story of Pocahontas, or, to use her real name, Matoaka, as one of the first missing and murdered Indigenous women. Logo edited from Missing Matoaka
light gray background framed by a burnt orange border with black text that reads"Search for institution holding Native American Remains and tribes Seeking to Reclaim them". below this text is a search bar. below that it says 623 institutions reported having Native American remains. 97,622, 46% of those remains have not been made available to tribes. 613 tribes to which institutions made remains available.
Use this website to explore if your local museum, state, or university still holds Ancestors and what tribes are seeking to have them repatriated. Propublica
multicolor timeline of Wesleyan University's History with NAGPRA. Contains the same information at the A timeline at Wesleyan section of the website.

In the late 1860s, George D. Barnes, an amateur collector from Dayton, TN received permission from landowners in Hamilton County and Chattanooga County, TN, to access their land and excavate multiple Indigenous burial mounds. Following Barnes’ excavation, he sold some of the Ancestors that he took to A.R. Critterdon, a Middletown resident. Wesleyan University then purchased 15 Ancestors from A.R Crittendon in 1869. However, the institution was unable to pay the full amount ($1,000) until 1899.

black and white image of the Wesleyan Natural History Museum located in Judd Hall. Here you can see casses linded up in rows on the left and right side of the room. In the center of the room is Shelly the Glyptodon and behind her is the cast skelton of a giant ground sloth.
Image of the Wesleyan Natural History located in Judd Hall
white piece of paper with black text. image of the 1st page of wesleyan university's Notice of inventory Completion.
white piece of paper with black text. image of the 2nd page of Wesleyan University's Notice of inventory Completion.

white background with cardinal red and squirrel black text that reads The Wesleyan Connection. the article tittle reads "Wesleyan Apologizes to NAtive Nations, Launches Repatriation Effort". it then lists the author as Kate Carlisle. Publishes November 8, 2012.
On November 8, 2013 Wesleyan University issued a public apology to Native Nations. The Wesleyan Connection

If you want to learn more about NAGPRA or the repatriation process, I recommend reading or listening to some of the resources below.