SPRINGFIELD – For decades, Illinois has failed to return Native American remains and belongings to their communities despite a federal law mandating states to do so.
Illinois has the second-largest collection of unrepatriated Native American remains in the U.S., housed at the Illinois State Museum, but the sponsors of a bill moving through the state legislature are trying to change that.
“The goal is more than just a system that recognizes Native American tribes and their state and their rights to their ancestors’ legacy,” Sen. Cristina Pacione-Zayas, a Democrat from Chicago and sponsor of the bill, said in committee. “It recognizes that the state has an indispensable role to play in redressing harms made by and creating systems that ultimately protect Native American burial sites moving forward.”
House Bill 3413 would streamline the process in which Illinois returns Native American remains and materials to their communities. The bill passed unanimously in the House in March and an amended version cleared a Senate committee unanimously this week, sending it to the full Senate for consideration.
The measure would expedite the process in which the Department of Natural Resources would identify, examine and repatriate Native American remains, creating a procedure in which the state would consult with affiliated tribal nations and increase IDNR’s control in the process.
For 30 years, the state museum has resisted returning remains and materials back to their original communities, according to a ProPublica investigation. Despite the 1990 passage of the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the state museum still maintains one of the largest collections of Native American remains in the country.
That law provides a process for federal agencies and museums receiving federal funds to repatriate or transfer their collections to lineal descendants or tribes. As of 2022, the Illinois State Museum had only returned 2 percent of the 7,700 remains it reported to the U.S. government, or just 156 individuals.
The Dickson Mounds Museum is Illinois’ biggest offender of the federal repatriation law. Based in Fulton County, the museum was built around an exhibit that displayed the open graves of over 200 indigenous people. The exposed human remains were displayed for decades before the exhibit closed in the early 1990s following the passage of the federal repatriation act.
According to the investigation, the museum preemptively designated any remains dated to before 1673 as culturally unidentifiable. When the federal repatriation law was passed, the museum returned at least 117 ancestors to the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma and transferred ownership of more than 32,000 funerary objects to the tribe.
This initial effort marked them as compliant with the law but, in the decades since, the museum has prioritized research over repatriation. Records obtained by ProPublica found the museum has approved almost every request to research its human remains collections from 1990 to 2018.
According to ProPublica, the museum has committed to repatriate about 1,100 tribal ancestors from Dickson Mounds. If successful, this effort would be the largest repatriation effort in the state’s history.
The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, a federally recognized Native American tribe in Kansas with historic ties to Illinois, advocated in favor of the bill.
“This legislation puts respect to our history and our ancestors the way they should have been respected centuries ago,” Joseph Rupnick, tribal council chairman for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, said in committee.
Rep. Mark Walker, D-Arlington Heights, said figuring out how to handle remains has been more difficult than he initially thought. He cited privacy as an issue they have tried to address in the bill.
“If we found [remains] at some known site that many tourists go to, many of the tribes have said they don’t really want them reburied there,” Walker, the bill’s lead sponsor, said in an interview. “They want them someplace that isn’t going to be a tourist attraction.”
HB 3413 allows IDNR to establish burial sites for Native American human remains that are closed to the public. The sites would be protected by the state and allow for the burial of repatriated remains, unregistered graves, grave markers or grave artifacts following tribal consultation.
Additionally, the bill creates the Repatriation and Reinterment Fund in the state treasury. For any violators of the act, restitution will be collected and distributed in the fund. The fund is also subject to appropriation in order to cover costs including the reinternment, repatriation, repair or restoration of human remains.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.