Universities have held onto sacred Indigenous remains and items for decades — and have been slow to give them back

The Ponca tribe buried Chief Standing Bear more than a century ago in what is now Nebraska.

But Standing Bear’s tomahawk, a symbol of protest against US government policies that didn’t define Native Americans as “people under the law,” has been sitting since 1982 in a glass case 1,500 miles away at a Harvard University museum in suburban Boston.

And it won’t belong to the tribe again until at least September, when officials have agreed to let Ponca leaders visit the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology as a part of the tomahawk’s repatriation.

The tomahawk technically does not fall under items that quality for repatriation under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act — or NAGPRA, a law that outlines legal processes for museums and universities to return ancestral remains and other qualified sacred items to Indigenous tribes.

But Brett Chapman, an Oklahoma attorney and descendant of Standing Bear, initiated the repatriation request, asking the museum to return it because it’s the right thing to do.

“It’s a moral issue. It shouldn’t be their call where we have to wait on them to decide and then praise them for being so benevolent,” Chapman told CNN. “This artifact shouldn’t have ever left the Ponca tribe.”

A federal law to address the issue falls short

Congress passed NAGPRA in 1990 to recognize that remains deserve to be “treated with dignity and respect,” and that objects removed from tribal lands belong to descendants.

But NAGPRA only applies to federally recognized tribes for “cultural items” ranging from the human remains of Indigenous ancestors to funerary objects with specific qualities. It requires tribes to provide evidence of previous ownership, along with other details such as property ownership and tribal history to prove their connections. However, many tribes track their histories orally or run into legal issues declaring land ownership, so they easily fall through cracks in the system.

Universities come into possession of Indigenous sacred items and human remains through both archaeology programs that dig them up and donations from collectors, like in the case of Harvard receiving the tomahawk as part of a bequest to the university.

Ira Matt, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, recently helped facilitate an agreement to get hundreds of cultural items — ranging from saddles to beadwork and moccasins — repatriated from the University of Montana after years of sorting and negotiating outside of NAGPRA guidelines.

Matt said this is a part of a larger movement of Indigenous tribes getting back remains and items across the country as they gain more legal and economic resources. He hopes his agreement can set a precedent for other tribes.

“It was a matter of time,” Matt said. “It just so happens, not everybody wants all these items. It also just happens that the public doesn’t necessarily have an appetite for a bunch of stolen items, corrupted from the people. And it just so happens, tribes are becoming prepared to take these things back, to fight for it legally. That foundation has given them the avenue.”

How universities are trying to improve repatriation efforts

Over the past few years, more university policies have centered on tribes recognized by NAGPRA, but they still have a long way to go.

The University of California system started prohibiting research on all Indigenous ancestral remains in 2018. After reports exposed UC Berkeley’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology falling behind on repatriation efforts, the university created a new role for a NAGPRA liaison officer (other schools in the University of California system have committees that serve as NAGPRA liaisons).

Thomas Torma, the officer since July 2020, said he’s only starting to catch up on the more than 9,000 remains and 13,000 funerary objects in Berkeley’s possession. He said the university now intends to finally repatriate all the items.

“I’m glad when (objects) go back, but I try to keep in mind that we still have thousands of ancestors being held at the Hearst, and each time a reminder of the long road we have ahead of us. It’s a little bittersweet because as great as it is to see items go back, it also always reminds me how much work we have to do,” said Torma, who used to be the cultural director for the Wiyot Tribe in California.

Other universities have created similar roles and processes. Vassar College and the University of Tennessee have repatriated thousands of native remains. Indiana University changed its policies last month to stop research on remains and create a board with tribal leaders to facilitate consent that would allow for research or repatriation of remains.

Tribes still face obstacles to getting their artifacts back

But other states still require hoops for tribes to jump through, and local tribes often struggle more to claim objects. In Texas, the local Miakan-Garza tribe, which is not federally recognized, has petitioned the University of Texas at Austin to return ancestral remains for years.

However, objections from federally recognized tribes about the Miakan-Garza tribe’s rightful ownership of the remains, mixed with the university’s strict adherence to NAGPRA guidelines, have prolonged the process.

Many Texas tribes aren’t federally recognized, leaving repatriation to administrators and museum curators and causing only a fraction of items to be returned, according to the Texas Observer. Currently, UT Austin is “optimistic about resolving the situation through a respectful burial process” and has had “positive discussions with members of the Miakan-Garza band as well as multiple federally recognized tribes,” said UT Austin spokesperson J.B. Bird.

Chapman said all these obstacles show why NAGPRA isn’t enough, and why more universities should strive to proactively return items to Indigenous people. Tribes may choose to rebury them, display them in their own museums or keep them safe in storage, but it should ultimately be their choice, he said.

“These were actual, living people and some of my relatives,” Chapman said. “That decision of how to use the items was taken away from them. And the spirit of a law like this should be for quicker repatriation and to repatriate most objects instead of hanging onto things.”

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The pandemic changed the way we ate and shopped — not always for the better

The pandemic changed the way we ate and shopped — not always for the better


FILE – In this May 23, 2011 file photo, consumer Sonia Romero shops for tomatoes at a Superior Grocers store in Los Angeles. As food costs continue rising, many grocery shoppers are seeking new ways to cut costs. After you’ve tried every store brand and linked, scanned and clipped every coupon in sight, what about buying in bulk? (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)


(CNN) — Covid-19 affected our lives in so many ways, including how we ate and shopped. The changes were not always for the better, according to a series of reports presented Monday at the annual meeting of the American Society of Nutrition.

Increase in junk food intake

An analysis by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found some of us increased our consumption of unhealthy snacks and desserts, including chips, cookies and ice cream, while also guzzling more sugary drinks such as sweetened coffee and teas, regular sodas, fruit drinks, and sports or energy drinks.

Over a third (36%) of the nearly 4,000 Americans who were surveyed in June 2020 reported sometimes consuming more unhealthy snacks and desserts than before the pandemic, while 22% said they sometimes drank sugary drinks.

However, 16% said they ate snacks and sweets often or always, while 10% said the same of sugary beverages. People who reported consuming the most unhealthy foods and drinks were more likely to identify as Hispanic or Black and be younger than age 65, obese, female, and of lower income and education levels.

The same survey also asked about food availability and safety. Nearly 6 in 10 people — predominately lower-income, unemployed, Black or Hispanic adults — said they were worried about not being able to obtain food at nearby stores or were concerned they might catch Covid-19 from food. Early fears that Covid-19 could be spread via food packaging were quickly discounted by scientists.

These findings “highlight the importance of strategies and communications that reduce fears and prevent unintended negative behaviors,” such as food hoarding and panic buying, said dietitian Brianna Dumas, a fellow in the CDC’s Research Participation Program, in an abstract.

In addition, public health officials should stress “consumer awareness of food access options during emergencies, including promotion of hunger safety net programs, especially among disproportionately affected groups,” Dumas said.

A drop in healthy foods

Another study analyzed the diets of more than 2,000 Americans before and during the pandemic and found a decrease in the consumption of healthy foods, including vegetables and whole grains, during the past year.

“This decrease was the most pronounced among women, black and Latino study participants, and participants who gained at least five pounds or more since 2018,” said Caroline Um, a postdoctoral fellow at the American Cancer Society, in a statement.

Um plans to follow study participants to understand how their diets might continue to change. Other studies will investigate which factors, such as mental health or financial stressors, might be involved in the change in eating behaviors.

Kids gained weight

Nearly 30% of 433 parents surveyed by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University said their child had gained an average of 9.6 pounds in the months between May and September of 2020.

Parents of children between 5 and 18 years old were questioned before the pandemic and again in May and September of 2020 about their concerns regarding their child’s weight.

Families who said their child gained weight during that time period were concerned about that trend and attempted to monitor and restrict their child’s eating habits in both May and September. However, in families where children did not gain weight, parents were initially concerned and monitored their child’s food intake in May, but had stopped doing so by September.

Further research is needed to investigate and target the “different behavioral, societal, environmental, and psychosocial factors” that might contribute to weight gain among children and adolescents, wrote Melanie Bean, an associate professor of pediatrics and co-director of the Healthy Lifestyles Center at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University, in an abstract.

Teasing people about their weight

Another study presented at the conference looked at the impact on children when family members teased them or made other critical comments about their weight. Researchers from Tufts University found that exposure to negative family comments about weight “as little as 3 times per month was significantly associated with moderate to high levels of weight bias internalization,” according to the study.

Prior research has shown that when children and adults experience weight stigma and internalize it, that itself can predict weight gain.

“A common perception is that a little shame or stigma might motivate people to lose weight, but that is not what we see in research,” Rebecca Puhl, deputy director at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, told CNN in a prior interview.

“In fact, when people experience weight stigma, this actually contributes to unhealthy eating behaviors, lower physical activity and weight gain,” Puhl said. “Our studies show that when parents shift the conversation to healthy behaviors, that tends to be much more effective.

“The focus isn’t on the number on the weight scale, but on the whole family eating fruits and vegetables, replacing soda with water, getting daily physical activity,” she added.

Online grocery shopping

A study done in the early days of the pandemic — March and April of 2020 — found that a third of the nearly 18,000 households surveyed said they were shopping online for groceries, and, of those, 60% said they planned to continue to do so after the pandemic passed.

Their top reasons? Over 80% said it was to “avoid public germs and Covid-19,” while 44% wanted to “take advantage of the convenience,” according to Shu Wen Ng, an associate professor in the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Higher food prices in areas with higher restrictions

Researchers from Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy analyzed retail prices for food and other consumer goods in 133 counties in the United States and compared them to the levels of Covid-19 restrictions imposed by local governments.
Results showed that a higher level of government restrictions during the pandemic was associated with higher food prices, but did not affect the cost of other consumer goods.