Decades after repatriation law, Oshkosh institutions hold remains of more than 200 Native Americans

A burial mound reconstruction in the Fox Valley village of Fox Crossing includes a historical marker describing how a large pocket of human remains was uncovered in the 19th century. (Miles Maguire | Oshkosh Examiner)

Sometime around 1870 (the historical accounts vary), the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad cut into a raised land formation in what is now Fritse Park in the Fox Valley village of Fox Crossing. The company was in search of gravel to use as ballast to support its tracks.

As workers dug down some 20 feet, they came across a “large pocket of human bones,” according to an article in The Daily Northwestern. Some of these were taken by onlookers, but most of them were hauled away in gravel cars to be spread beneath the railroad’s tracks.

“The skulls and bones and relics of ancient kings and glory were strewn along the right of way for miles,” according to the Northwestern.

Such disrespectful treatment of Native American people would be unthinkable today. But a slow-motion desecration continues to a surprising degree in Oshkosh and across the country. Despite a federal law more than 30 years old, the skeletal remains of Native Americans as well as culturally significant artifacts have been retained in large numbers by universities and museums.

What current Oshkosh residents know as Algoma Boulevard was once a main route used by indigenous tribes. Today, less than a mile apart on this street, are two collections of Native American remains that number more than 200 in total.  

Based on a recent review of its collection, the Oshkosh Public Museum says it has the remains of 52 individuals. The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh is cagey about revealing the extent of its holdings, but a database maintained by the National Park Service puts the current total at 166. University records indicate that one set of remains may be 4,000 years old.

The return of remains and culturally significant objects to Native American tribes was supposed to be set in motion by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which passed in 1990. But most institutions that have such items in their collections have made very little progress. 

The Oshkosh museum has repatriated the remains of six individuals, 10% of what it showed in a 1993 inventory. It is not clear whether UW Oshkosh has repatriated any, although it has begun, and may have completed, the process for as many as six.

Harrington Hall houses the collections of the Department of Anthropology at UW Oshkosh. (Miles Maguire | Oshkosh Examiner)

Repatriation rates vary by institution

By contrast some other institutions in the state have done much more in returning remains and sacred objects to tribes. The University of Wisconsin Madison, for example, says on its website that it has actively pursued grants to fund its efforts, which it says have “resulted in the repatriation of over 400 ancestors and over 3,500 funerary objects.”  

Both the city museum and UW Oshkosh are reluctant to share detailed information on their holdings of human remains and funerary objects, even though such information is available to anyone who is willing to go through the process of making a request to the U.S. Department of the Interior under the Freedom of Information Act.

Some of this reluctance is understandable because it is intended to discourage the further looting of Native American graves and to honor tribal wishes. In at least one case, a “tribe has asked for anonymity regarding site locations, descriptions of the remains and objects, and their repatriation efforts” with the museum, said Anna C. Cannizzo, the city museum’s chief curator. 

A spokesperson for the university, Peggy Breister, said the university was not granting interview requests “out of respect for” the tribes whose remains it holds. Some Native Americans believe the real reason is that the university wants to discourage public awareness of its extensive collection.

Details about the Oshkosh holdings would reveal the extent to which Native American peoples inhabited the land that white settlers took away on the basis that it was vacant and going unused. The documentation that is available also shows the sometimes cavalier way that ancestral remains have been treated.

What institutions have collected as scientific specimens for use in teaching and research are, in fact, the sacred remains and relics of tribal ancestors. But the stalemate over whose interests should prevail in deciding their possession may be about to break as attitudes change and new federal regulations are developed.

Until last year some UW System schools had not been working closely with Wisconsin tribes, said David Grignon, director of historic preservation for the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin. 

“UW Oshkosh, Milwaukee, those two for some reason did not report everything to the tribes,” he said. “Someone found out about that within the System and said, ‘Well you better start doing that, make this right.’ So there’s been consultation meetings with the tribes ever since.”

The information about the extent of the collections in Oshkosh is surfacing at a time when the local community is trying to make amends to Native American people with an expanded historical display at the Chief Oshkosh statue overlooking Lake Winnebago and the naming of a new elementary school after the Menominee.

We won’t allow access for research, publication — nothing without the express consent of the tribes.

– Anna C. Cannizzo, Oshkosh Public Museum chief curator

The majority of the human remains at UWO were excavated in 1971 or earlier — long before I joined the faculty and even before I became an anthro major at UWO,” said Jeffery Behm, who was an undergraduate at the school in early 1970s and is now a professor emeritus of anthropology. 

But the university has continued to add to its holdings of human remains in recent years. In 2018 it accepted a collection from a husband-and-wife team of “avocational archaeologists” who lived in Neenah, Richard and Carol Mason.

According to a notice that was published last summer in the Federal Register, the Masons had removed these remains from a Winnebago County dig in 1985 and held them as part of a private collection that contained 18 “associated funerary objects.” The Masons left no notes on these items, and neither the age nor the sex of the deceased is known. 

The Masons were well known among Wisconsin archaeologists and are responsible for some of the other holdings in the university’s collection. Carol Mason was for a time an assistant regional archeologist for the state.

A dig she conducted off Bayshore Drive in 1993 included two “shovel tests” that turned up skeletal remains. The remains were stored separately, and it was only later that the university determined that they belonged to the same 8½-year-old child.

The city museum has stopped adding to its collections of remains, and no longer displays sacred objects. “We won’t allow access for research, publication — nothing without the express consent of the tribes,” Cannizzo said.

Remains were collected from multiple county sites

The university has human remains that were collected at more than a dozen sites around Winnebago County as well as from individual sites in Calumet, Fond du Lac, Green Lake and Waupaca counties, according to a 1995 inventory.

Human remains are not always “identified during excavation,” Behm said.

 “Some of my field projects recovered some isolated human skeletal remains — primarily individual teeth,” he said. “None were from a recognizable burial. Instead, they were collected during regular screening of the excavated soil and only identified during the laboratory processing (cleaning and inventorying) phase.”

But in at least one case from the museum, bones and teeth were apparently removed from a skeleton that was then reburied. These remains were made available for repatriation in 2000.

At UW Oshkosh remains of at least 10 individuals were classified as “unprovenienced,” meaning that the university does not know where they came from, although most are thought to have originated in Wisconsin. One set is from Sonora, Mexico. Unprovenienced remains may have come from illicit digging or may have been acquired without written records. The term “provenience” refers to the original location where an item is found, which is distinguished from provenance, which refers to successive changes in ownership.

Most of the remains held at the museum came from Wisconsin, according to a 1993 inventory. This listing includes specific references to locations in Winnebago County, including Oshkosh. Another reference is to Menominee, Michigan.

The number of remains that were disinterred from Winnebago County sites, some of which are now as far away as Harvard University, is 435, according to federal data. In Wisconsin only Burnett County, once the site of extensive burial mounds, has had more removals, 475.

One set of skeletal remains in the possession of UW Oshkosh came back to Winnebago County by way of the University of Winnipeg in Canada. John Steinbring, an Oshkosh native, apparently acquired the remains from employees of the Oshkosh museum, who had dug up a grave site on a sandy knoll that had been partially exposed by the wind.

Steinbring took the remains with him when he went to work in Winnipeg in 1963 and then returned them to Oshkosh when he retired about three decades later. The location of the grave is now unknown. 

Records indicate that it was near Winneconne and called the Commodore Harris site. But the university was unable to indicate any landowners named Harris in that vicinity, and its historical notes raised the possibility that the grave was in the Town of Rushford near Rush Lake. 

The story of the Steinbring skeleton is told in a document that was part of an inventory that was created by the university over several years from 1993 to 1995. The inventory was available in Polk Library until recently, when officials directed that access be restricted for members of the public.

A list of holdings of human remains at UW-Oshkosh UW Oshkosh has removed records about its holdings of human remains from the campus archives in Polk Library. This image was obtained before the records were removed. (Miles Maguire | Oshkosh Examiner)

Universities, museums and public agencies across the country have come under closer scrutiny in recent months after the nonprofit news organization ProPublica published The Repatriation Project in early January online.

America’s institutions maintain control of more than 100,000 remains of Native Americans as well as sacred items,” ProPublica reported. Remains are traced to individuals but do not necessarily represent a complete skeleton. A single bone or even a tooth can be counted as an individual.

UW Oshkosh has 80th largest collection in U.S.

ProPublica’s investigation shows that UW Oshkosh has the 80th largest collection of Native American remains in the country, but its holdings are far from the most extensive, either nationally or in the state. 

The University of California, Berkeley, has the distinction of having the largest number of Native American remains in the country. It has reported to the federal government that it has had the remains of 11,600 individuals and still has more than 9,000 that have not been made available for repatriation. 

According to ProPublica’s reporting, the Wisconsin institution with the largest number of Native American remains is the Milwaukee Public Museum, with more than 1,600. Other large holdings are at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison (1,043), Beloit College’s Logan Museum (369), UW-Madison’s Department of Anthropology (173) and the Neville Public Museum in Green Bay (108).

A host of factors  explain why so few remains have been repatriated. But at the base are unresolved cultural and economic conflicts. These conflicts are evident from the start when human remains or sacred objects are disturbed — a relatively common event even in the 21st century.

In the last half-dozen years, the remains of at least 10 Native American people have been recovered from road and building projects in Oshkosh. Tribal representatives have said they would prefer that grave sites be left undisturbed, but state law provides that remains and artifacts be gathered up and held under the control of the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison for storage or possible reburial.

Another, less common, reason why repatriations have moved so slowly is that some museums across the country have refused to comply with federal reporting requirements. Starting in 2016 the National Park Service stopped enforcing  the law and currently has a backlog of allegations to investigate, according to the 2022 annual report of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Review Committee. 

Other institutions have complied with the reporting requirements but decided that the remains theypossessed are needed for research or teaching. 

Since UW Oshkosh won’t answer questions, it’s not clear whether or how it uses the ancestral remains in its possession. According to its online bulletin, the Department of Anthropology offers a course called “Human Skeleton,” which considers “individual bones and teeth, possibly including ancient as well as modern specimens.”

David Grignon, the director of historic preservation for the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin David Grignon is the director of historic preservation for the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin. (Miles Maguire | Oshkosh Examiner)

“A big problem to us, with the tribes, is whether they keep using these in class, classroom work and stuff,” said Grignon, the Menominee official. He does not know if the remains are still being used in this manner. “I hope not,” he said.

In key ways the NAGPRA process is stacked against the tribes. “The burden, both to make the claim and to substantiate the claim, falls on the Native American groups,” Cannizzo said. 

The Oshkosh museum has handled “every NAGPRA request that we’ve received as quickly and as seriously as possible, but it always falls to the Native American group to prove their case and do the legwork,” she said.”That’s one area of the NAGPRA process that could definitely be improved.”

Institutions urged to do more

Ashley Hesse, a Comanche descendant who serves on the city’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, said institutions that hold remains and sacred objects should be more proactive. 

“They need to take an active role in identifying and engaging in conversations with the Indigenous nations that exist here [and] to recognize tribes that have ceded territory and historic territories here,” he said. “They have to have a formal active process to reach out [and] engage. They need to be the ones initiating.”

The displacement of tribes from their ancestral lands is another impediment to repatriation. UW Oshkosh’s Behm said that he had worked with members of the Meskwaki, who are part of what the federal government calls the Sac and Fox tribe, at two local archeological sites where graves were found starting in the early 1990s.

Put them in the ground where they are supposed to be.

– David Grignon, director of historic preservation, Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin

At one site, the graves could be preserved in place. But at the other they had to be removed because of planned construction.

With full consultation with the Meskwaki and at their request we removed those burials,” Behm said. “This was done with the expectation that those remains and the associated grave goods would be transferred to the Meskwaki when a suitable reburial location could be identified.”

The problem is that the Meskwaki people now live in Iowa. “They didn’t want to rebury anyone in Iowa who died and was originally buried in their Grand Village on Big Lake Butte des Morts,” Behm said. “Instead they want to rebury the remains and grave goods in Wisconsin.”

Behm said he had suggested several options, “including campus or other UWO property, but none ever met with the approval of the Meskwaki tribal government.”

Tribes start at a disadvantage when remains, even those that are taken from their historical lands, are classified as “culturally unidentifiable.” The museum said all of the remains in its possession are culturally unidentifiable. In its 1995 inventory, UW Oshkosh said it has 55 that are culturally unidentifiable.

“This group includes skeletal remains without associated grave goods or site provenience and thus cannot be identified to time period or cultural tradition,” Behm said. “This group also includes remains that predate the Oneota tradition and cannot be linked to a specific modern nation.”

New regulations could speed repatriations

While tribes can regain custody of remains that have received this designation, it is a long, hard process.

The Interior Department is now headed by Deb Haaland, the first person of Native American descent to serve in a White House cabinet. Her department is working to revise the regulations that govern NAGPRA, and one change would make it easier for tribes to advance their claims based on geographic connections rather than having to demonstrate a cultural affiliation that depends on a range of factors and is much harder to prove.

This lack of clarity over the source of remains is a challenge, even for institutions that are uncomfortable with the extent of their holdings and agree that more repatriations should occur. Different tribes have different burial practices. What is appropriate in one tribal tradition may not be appropriate in another.

“Not every culture would want the remains dedicated in a certain way,” said Sarah Phillips, director of the Oshkosh museum. “I think we want to do the right thing. [But] what is the right thing? And I think there’s a lot of different answers depending on who you talk to, and it’s a sensitive conversation to have.”

I had heard over the years that there were efforts underway for all of the possible descendant tribes to develop some form of a group repatriation but as far as I know it never came together,” Behm said.

Although the city of Oshkosh is named for a Menominee chief, the Menominee is not the only tribe that has lived in the area. In one recent case UW Oshkosh has said the identity of remains that were recovered from a Winnebago County quarry can be “reasonably traced” to half a dozen different tribes.

UW Oshkosh listed them as: “the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin; Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska; Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma; Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin; Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Indians, Oklahoma; and the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.”

In a case like this, all of the tribes need to agree on a course of action, Behm said. “I could not repatriate any remains or associated grave goods without authorization.” 

From the tribal perspective, the solution is a joint claim. “We’ll say, ‘Well, Menominee was there. Ho Chunk was there. Potawatomi was there,’” Grignon said. “We don’t know who was the Native [American group] from that area. So let’s go joint claim and get those back. Put them in the ground where they are supposed to be.”

UW Oshkosh has described most of the remains in its possession as belonging to the Oneota people, who are thought to have lived in Wisconsin for five centuries ending around 1500. But as Carol Mason once wrote, “No one knows where the Oneota came from or what happened to them.”

The UW Oshkosh position has been that the Oneota are culturally affiliated with the Ho-Chunk, the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma. In 1995 the university notified the Menominee that none of the items in its holdings were “identifiable as Menominee.”

Writing in 1995, Mason suggested that there were no Menominee in Wisconsin until the early 17th century and that they may have moved here from Canada. But that’s not how the Menominee see themselves. 

Their origin story says that they have lived in Wisconsin and parts of Michigan and Illinois for 10,000 years. 

The Menominee Tribe’s history is unique because our origin or creation begins at the mouth of the Menominee River, a mere 60 miles east of our present Menominee Indian Reservation,” the tribe states on its website. “Not many tribes in this region can attest to a fact [that] their origin place exists close or near to their present reservation. This is where our history begins.”

The entryway to the Oshkosh Public Museum grounds The Oshkosh Public Museum has repatriated the remains of six individuals, but none in recent years. (Miles Maguire | Oshkosh Examiner)

Menominee in Old Copper Culture

The dispute over how long the Menominee have been in Wisconsin may be moving toward resolution as new evidence has been advanced to show that they have been here since what Western anthropologists call the Old Copper Culture, which has been traced back thousands of years and continued into the common era. 

There is …  good archaeological evidence that ancestral Menominee can … be connected to some of the Oneota sites in the Fox River-Lake Winnebago basin,” Behm said in a recent email. 

Last fall the Menominee held a two-day ceremony to take back remains that had been removed from two sites on the Menominee River and a site on Shawano Lake. Some of these remains had been held by the University of Michigan, which said in a 2021 Federal Register notice that “tribal experts provided evidence for cultural affiliation based on their longstanding presence in the Menominee River Valley.”

The reinterment of the remains was the culmination of a process that was initiated in 2011. “That repatriation took a long time,” Grignon said. “That took from 2011 to last year, back and forth consultation, them wanting more and more information to back up our claim.”

Experts at Michigan’s Museum of Anthropological Archaeology had previously concluded that “the burials are associated with Old Copper Culture.” But based on the tribal evidence, they came to the view that “regional variations within Old Copper Culture [point] toward an association between these particular burials and the Menominee traditional homelands,” according to the Federal Register.

The Menominee called this shift  “significant” because “the tribe is recognized as being a part of the ‘Old Copper Culture,’” a change that could open the way for more repatriations from Wisconsin institutions. 

Another hopeful sign for tribes is that institutions are starting to adjust their views about what they can reasonably retain. A good example of this is the 2020 return by the Oshkosh museum of a carved powder horn that had belonged to a Stockbridge-Munsee sachem.

This repatriation was a second attempt, because the first time the tribe asked for it back the answer was no. In 2002 the museum board, which has the final say over what will be given back to Native American tribes, had decided that the powder horn was a utilitarian object, an item that was used in everyday life with no larger significance.

But in 2020 when the tribe renewed its interest in having the powder horn, Cannizzo investigated the previous claim to see why it had been rejected. She then coached Bonney Hartley, the tribal historic preservation officer, on how to make the argument that the powder horn should be seen in a different light. 

Cultural versus utilitarian objects

“The powder horn, though it can be read as a utilitarian item of its time, is an example of how objects can evolve to have multilayered meanings and significance to a community,” Hartley said in a letter to the museum. 

This powder horn, which was carved with the initials of tribal sachem John Quinney, “has evolved to stand as a symbol for Mohican cultural identity and therefore possess ongoing cultural and historical importance that render it an item of cultural patrimony for the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican people,” Hartley said.

The “cultural patrimony” claim undercut the museum’s position on keeping the powder horn because it did not have records showing how the item passed from its original owners to the institution. As Hartley pointed out, the museum could not assert a “right of possession” to a cultural item because it could not explain how the person who donated the powder horn to the museum had himself obtained it.

Cannizzo said she was glad that the powder horn is now at the tribe’s Arvid E. Miller Memorial Library Museum in Shawano County.

“Museum professionals shouldn’t be afraid” of repatriation, Cannizzo said. “It’s not like you are losing anything. Getting these items home to where they need to be is a meaningful experience.”

Copublished with the Oshkosh Examiner, an independent news website not affiliated with the Wisconsin Examiner.

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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F04%2F21%2Fdecades-after-repatriation-law-oshkosh-institutions-hold-remains-of-more-than-200-native-americans%2F by Miles Maguire

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