Stories about Repatriations: Journeys to complete the work


Comics are not just cool, they are an effective communicating tool.


Stories about Repatriations: Journeys to complete the work issue 1 was released in November 2017 and is the work of American anthropologists Sonya Atalay and Jen Shannon, and illustrator John G. Swogger.


Stories is intended to help Native peoples, archaeologists, historic preservation officers, museum administrators and others involved in repatriation decisions to understand both the obligations and the impact of NAGPRA legislation and process. NAGPRA refers to the Native American Graves Protection Act, a US federal law that was passed in 1990. The act is to ensure that federally funded agencies return human remains to Native American communities for reburial.


Journeys to complete the work

The aim of Stories is simple – it shows how new relationships of cooperation can be forged and how they can lead to meaningful outcomes – where all participants can benefit from an act of repatriation. According to Shannon it just requires participants to be flexible and work in a slightly different way. It requires change, and change is something people and organisations find difficult to do.


Stories is published under a Creative Commons License. This means that anyone can use it, but there is also the need to make it accessible to as many people as possible.


To obtain your free PDF copy click here NAGPRA Comic 1


Although the comic is not an official NAGPRA product, it does clearly explain NAGPRA legislation and important terms. However, legislative language can also act as a barrier in understanding how the law works.


Stories helps to break down this barrier. It demonstrates how legal language has made an act of repatriation a process of confrontation. Think of a comic that acts as a sort of Citizens Advice Bureau – and there lies its strength.


Why a comic?


According to Swogger


“Why a comic? Comics can do three important things when it comes to conveying information: (1) they can show as well as tell, making it easy to (2) de-complicate unfamiliar subject matter without resorting to “dumbing-down”, and (3) help ground and humanise a subject by using narrative and storytelling. The NAGPRA comic is also an example of how a storytelling-route, using actual examples, helps show how individual actions and decisions make repatriations happen (or not).”


What is issue 1 about?


FACT – did you know that between 300,000 – 600,000 Native American human remains are held in collections in the USA?


From the outset, Stories clearly identifies the sensitive nature of human remains held in official institutions. It offers a fair and honest explanation about how human remains were unethically acquired by Europeans during the time of colonialism. After all, its impact on Native Americans had devastating consequences and we, as colonial descendants, were never taught this side of colonial history at school!


Is the comic solely concerned with dry legislation?


Not at all. Attempts to repatriate in the past have not always gone well. In fact, there has been disappointment and anger as a result of poor communication, collection mismanagement, the lack of engagement or the refusal to listen to another’s (non-academic) point of view. Museums are certainly guilty of this.


Issue 1 provides interesting and poignant examples through the work of Atalay and Shannon at the University of Michigan and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University. Their sad (real) stories highlights the common conflict experienced by Native peoples and the difficult challenges employed by government-funded institutions for them to prove direct ancestral connections and cultural ownership.


The argument traditionally held by government heritage organisations typically goes like this


‘These remains have been in our museum for over a hundred years. With the development of science we can learn more about these/ your people. We have invested time and money researching them. What right do you have to claim ownership over them? Are you aware of the scientific information lost if they are returned for reburial?’


It’s as if a claim to repatriate and rebury human remains is a genuine slap in the face of science. Yet how many indigenous remains are being scientifically researched by institutions? It’s a fact that very few have the means to do this work. And even if they did, what do the results yield?


The violation of basic human rights is a significant argument for the return of ancestral remains and this is because academics and museum scholars have to date focused more on the benefits of science and less on the question of the ethics of acquisition. This is a complex issue, the solutions of which will not be found in this blog. However, it is one that deservedly continues to be debated.


Issue 1 provides clear detail and experiences with mixed outcomes. It’s a clever informative tool and it’ll be interesting to hear what colleagues think.


What else does the comic highlight?


After the university had been made aware of the issues, the University of Michigan – by showing leadership and taking charge of the process – has become a world leader in NAGPRA, and acts as a model for other institutions wishing to change the approach they take towards repatriation.


Will there be an issue 2?


Well, issue 2 might well look at some of the really fruitful collaborations that have taken place with Michigan as a result of their new-found leadership – proof that good communication, good attitude and good scholarship go hand in hand, and can build meaningful research relationships!