Natural History museum in New York City returns ancestral remains to Canadian tribe

By Deepti Hajela
New York, New York (AP) 6-08

For one Canadian Native tribe’s members, the history they found at the museum was their own.

Members of the Tseycum First Nation visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York City during June to reclaim the remains of ancestors taken from their land about a century ago.

The group planned to take the remains June 11 back to Vancouver Island in Canada’s British Columbia. An interment was scheduled for June 13, Chief Vern Jacks said.

“Our people don’t belong in boxes in a museum,” he said. “This is our life, we still respect our dead.”

The quest started years ago, when Jacks’ wife, Cora, was going through some papers and came across a reference to an archaeologist who had traveled in the area and taken from graves bones that ended up in museum collections.

“I realized how important it was to determine where those remains were,” she said. Further search led to the realization that some were in New York, at the museum. The tribe also plans to look to Europe, where it believes some remains are as well.

The tribe said it was pleased with the New York museum’s reaction to its request.

“They were amazing,” Cora Jacks said. “They were extremely helpful from the first time we contacted them.”

Charles McLean, senior vice president for communications and marketing at the museum, said a process was already in place to address repatriation issues. He said there had been at least one other occasion where the museum had returned remains.

“The museum is certainly willing to consider requests from legitimate sources for the repatriation of remains,” he said, though he noted that remains make up a tiny portion of the 30 million items in the collection.

Members of the tribe came to the museum Monday. They held a ceremony, singing and praying over the boxes containing their ancestors’ remains.

“I think everybody here at the museum was very gratified at the outcome,” McLean said. “It was a very moving ceremony.”

Other ceremonies will be held Friday in Canada to return the remains to their resting places, Cora Jacks said. “It’s important they be able to come home and rest in peace.”

She said the repatriation was important for the tribe’s young people. “It gives the young people a sense of how to correct something,” she said.

The quest is not yet entirely over. The tribe says there are other remains at the Field Museum in Chicago, and it plans to start the repatriation process with that institution. The museum did not return a call seeking comment.

Cora Jacks said the tribe would then turn its attention to Europe.