Former Employees Say Smithsonian Resisted Action on Human Remains

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post
Karen Mudar, left, and Paula Molloy both worked for the Smithsonian in the 1990s.

In 1998, Karen Mudar was told by her boss at the Smithsonian Institution to inventory the human brains that one of its anthropologists had amassed in the early 20th century.

Mudar, whose job at the National Museum of Natural History entailed returning human remains to Native American tribes, was stunned by what she discovered. She had long known the Smithsonian had thousands of skulls and other bones but did not know how many brains the institution still held.

She found the Smithsonian had collected more than 280 brains, and in a memo to the chair of the anthropology department, Mudar warned that absent scientific research, the collection could alienate visitors and become “an object of morbid curiosity.”

But for the next two decades, the Smithsonian did virtually nothing to address her concerns.

“They could have been proactive in informing the community,” Mudar said. “The decision-makers . . . had no interest. They just wanted to go back to their own research.”

Mudar’s warning came at a time when she and other workers in the repatriation office found themselves battling colleagues as they sought to repatriate tens of thousands of human remains in storage. Five former employees who worked in the office in its early years told The Washington Post they encountered resistance from physical anthropologists at the Natural History Museum who wanted to keep some of the skeletal remains so they could continue conducting research on them.

“It was sort of like working in an area of an institution where no one else in the institution supports what we do,” said Chuck Smythe, who was a case officer in the repatriation office from 1994 to 2000.

Interviews with former employees offer a behind-the-scenes look at the institution’s failure to grapple with all the body parts in its collection and help to explain the challenge the staff still faces more than 30 years later. The Smithsonian acquired one of the largest collections of body parts in the world, largely under the direction of Ales Hrdlicka, a once-renowned Smithsonian anthropologist who believed in White superiority and was active in the field of eugenics.

Today, a federal law mandates that the Smithsonian offer to return the Native American remains in its possession. Of nearly 35,000 sets of body parts collected largely in the first half of the 20th century, only 6,300 have been returned or made available to descendants or cultural heirs, as reported by The Post in August.

Smithsonian officials declined to comment on allegations made by former employees. In a statement Wednesday, the officials said that the museum’s repatriation office has long met its legal obligations under federal repatriation law but that more must be done.

“Repatriating human remains and unethically obtained cultural items in our collections have been among our top priorities,” the statement read.

Earlier this year, the secretary of the Smithsonian, Lonnie G. Bunch III, apologized for the way the institution had collected remains in the past. He told The Post that it was his goal to return as many human remains as possible, and later wrote an op-ed that outlined how the institution will go forward with repatriation.

Bunch, who declined a request for an interview for this article, wrote in his op-ed that he recognized the Smithsonian “is responsible both for the original work of Hrdlicka and others who subscribed to his beliefs, and for the failure to return the remains he collected to descendant communities in the decades since.”

‘At odds’ with history

The Smithsonian established the repatriation office in 1991 to help carry out a new federal law that required the institution to inventory and return human remains in its possession to federally recognized Native American, Native Hawaiian and Alaska Native tribes. Two years before, Native American communities had successfully lobbied for the legislation.

Anthropologist Tom Killion was one of the office’s first hires. Working out of a wing of the Natural History Museum, he and other employees undertook their unprecedented mission: inventorying the provenance of tens of thousands of sets of human remains – most of them skeletons and other bone fragments – and contacting tribes to offer them for repatriation.

“Literally, we did not have protocols,” said Killion, who was promoted to lead the office in 1993. “We had the law and we had ourselves to hammer out ways of doing this.”

The group worked frequently with the museum’s physical anthropology division, whose employees used the remains for their research that included human evolution and the migration patterns and characteristics of historical communities.

Killion said he and his staff were generally welcomed by the physical anthropologists, now known as biological anthropologists. But he said the office sometimes felt pressure to retain certain remains so that anthropologists could continue their research.

“We were doing something that was at odds with the then-150-year history of the museum, which was to collect scientific specimens for the increase in diffusion of knowledge,” Killion said. “And so that was a very touchy and difficult relationship at times.”

Another former repatriation office employee, Phil Cash Cash, said anthropologists at the Smithsonian were eager to collect as much data as possible on remains, even after tribes had requested their repatriation. Museum protocol requires all remains to be measured and documented before return, which officials said provides tribes with estimates on how many individuals’ remains are being sent back. But some Native Americans see the additional data collection as invasive or insulting.

Cash Cash, a member of the Cayuse and Nez Percé tribes, said he once stored human remains associated with one of the tribes in his office so anthropologists could not use them for research while he waited for the tribe to request their return.

In another instance, he said he had carefully prepared and boxed up remains for repatriation one night in 1996, only to find the next morning that the boxes in his office had been opened and inspected.

“I was heartbroken, of course, and I understand how close the spirit can be with the remains of the body,” said Cash Cash, who worked in the office from 1992 to 1997. “To me, it was a desecration, and it was difficult to reconcile for quite a while after.”

Vernelda Grant, the director of the San Carlos Apache Tribe’s historic preservation and archaeology department, was assigned to work with the repatriation office when she interned at the Smithsonian in 1996. She said she tried to avoid walking by boxes of human remains that lined some of the museum hallways. She recalled seeing people work with remains on their desks as they ate lunch.

“I thought, that is not how you do lab work,” said Grant, who is working to secure repatriation for items sacred and holy to Apache tribes. “That’s not how we do conservation.”

Mudar, who worked from 1993 to 1999 in the museum’s repatriation office, frequently went to Alaska to consult with tribes about human remains in the Smithsonian’s possession.

Sometimes, she said, she was told by colleagues to try to persuade Native American tribes to allow the Natural History Museum to hold on to their remains for research.

She said that after one trip to Alaska, she told Douglas Owsley, a curator in the division of biological anthropology, that the tribes still wanted the remains. In response, Owsley told her she had not tried hard enough, she said.

“It was really mortifying because I did what they told me to do, which was try to convince these people that they should leave the remains in the museum,” she said. The tribes “were offended, and they told me they were offended and insulted.”

Owsley, who is still a curator in the division, declined through a museum spokesman to be interviewed for this article.

In October 2022, Owsley told The Post that he and his fellow anthropologists treated human remains in their custody with great care and respect, and that their research was essential to understanding histories.

“I do feel that if we can tell that person’s story, if we can learn from them and talk about them, I do feel that that’s not something that they would be – if they were alive today – that they’d be opposed to,” Owsley said.

Other employees who worked with the repatriation office in the 1990s said they did not see resistance to repatriation. Gayle Yiotis, an archivist who helped with research, said she heard complaints that the museum was taking too long to return remains, but she believed the time was necessary.

“We had to make sure that the remains that a tribe was claiming or a nation was claiming actually belonged to that nation or that tribe, so it involved a lot of research,” she said.

Mudar said she encountered little resistance to returning remains of those identified by name, like some of the brains taken from Native American people.

She first turned her attention to the brains in the collection in 1998, when the family of a 60-year-old Tlingit man from Hoonah, Alaska, requested the return of his brain.

That same year, researchers discovered that the Natural History Museum had been storing the brain of Ishi, thought to be the last survivor of the Yahi group of the Yana people in Northern California. The case drew worldwide attention, and the brain was eventually transferred to two California tribes. In both cases, the museum supported the repatriation of the brains.

Mudar was also tasked with looking at the entire collection of brains and prepared the lengthy report on the demographics and history of the collection.

She wrote a memo to Dennis Stanford, then the chair of the anthropology department, warning leaders that the “sensitive nature of this collection jeopardizes relationships with visitors.”

At the time, Mudar said, she did not believe the brains had been collected unethically and concluded they should be available for study or catalogued in a national journal. The Post only found a 1906 study on the brains, in which Hrdlicka compared the effectiveness of preservatives for storage, and a 1999 assessment of the condition of several brains.

“Scientific study of the remains is the only justification for the maintenance of this collection,” she wrote to Stanford. “If the collection is not available for research, it becomes an object of morbid curiosity.”

Mudar said there was no response from Stanford, who died in 2019. She also said she now believes the brains must go back to families and communities rather than be used for research.

Paula Molloy, who started working as a case officer at the Natural History Museum in 1994, said she was disturbed when Mudar first showed her the report.

Molloy said it was an “astonishing failure of leadership” that Bunch, the Smithsonian secretary, had to learn about specifics of the collection from The Post. She insisted that the Smithsonian must be proactive about reaching out to local descendant communities.

“In my view, retaining that collection was antithetical to the mission of the Smithsonian,” said Molloy, who left in 2000. “It was morally wrong. And when you add the historical element and the injustice on top of that, it really angered me. It still angers me.”

‘Too proactive’

In 2000, museum officials made the repatriation office, which had been largely staffed by employees on fixed-term contracts, a permanent part of the institution. In doing so, the museum eliminated some of those jobs for budgetary reasons and did not hire certain employees for the new full-time positions, including Killion, the head of the office; Mudar; and Smythe.

Mudar said she believed their dismissal was “intentional, to slow the work down.”

Stephen Loring, an archaeologist and anthropologist who worked in another division at the museum, agreed. “They were just seen as too proactive,” he said.

In the years after Mudar and others left, the repatriation office came under scrutiny for its lack of progress. In 2011, a Government Accountability Office report found that the museum would need “several more decades” to inventory and repatriate all of its Native American remains at its current pace. The program manager at the time said the “limited” number of employees – 11 – contributed to the delay, according to the report.

By 2011, the museum had returned or made available about 5,000 sets of remains to Native American tribes, according to the report.

Since then, the repatriation office, which has 10 employees and two more starting soon, has returned or made available about another 1,300 sets of remains, the majority of them to Native American tribes.

In the statement, Smithsonian officials said they “recognize that there is more to be done,” particularly for remains that are not mandated to be returned under federal law.

In 2015, the museum created policies that would facilitate repatriation of human remains to foreign countries, and in 2020 to tribes that are not federally recognized.

Officials at the Smithsonian and other museums across the country described a sea change with regard to repatriation in recent years.

Anthropologist Rosita Kaaháni Worl, who has worked at the Natural History Museum and served on the review committee for a federal repatriation law, said that many anthropologists were once reluctant to return human remains but that attitudes have begun to shift.

“I’ve seen changes among the younger anthropologists and museum professionals,” said Worl, who is Tlingit. “I see the younger generation as much more open to it.”

Smithsonian employees said relationships between the institution and Native communities are stronger as a result of the repatriation office’s work. They also said they have made significant progress repatriating body parts given their large workload and limited staff.

This year, Dorothy Lippert, an archaeologist and citizen of the Choctaw Nation, became the first Native American and first woman to hold the role of program manager of the repatriation office.

“The work that we do does allow people to begin that process of healing,” said Lippert, who joined the office as a case officer in 2001. “It’s a challenging process to work on, but I think in the end, what we’re doing is trying to make things better than they were.”

As The Post investigated, the Smithsonian in April announced the creation of a task force to write new policies on human remains in the museum’s possession.

During a House Administration Committee hearing this week, Rep. Joseph Morelle (D-N.Y.) questioned Bunch about the task force’s progress and plans to return brains to families, calling the collection a “revolting historic wrong.”

Bunch told Morelle he expected to receive a report from the task force in the next few weeks.

Michael Blakey, an anthropologist and member of the task force, has been critical of the museum’s progress on repatriation in the past. He said that he is encouraged by the task force meetings but that change will be “a continuing effort.”

“I’m a scientist,” he said. “What does the empirical evidence . . . tell us? It tells us that there will be resistance.”