Marti Only A Chief started her Jeep, turning on the radio as she left Baltimore behind. It had been a long drive, more than 20 hours, stopping once in Nashville, Tennessee. But she didn’t complain — her relatives, as she calls them, had had a much longer journey.

“You probably haven’t heard this music, but this is what I listen to,” the 60-year-old said to the ancestral remains of her relatives, sitting in a cedar box in the back of her jeep as a country song blasted from the speakers.

She was headed back to the Pawnee Nation in Oklahoma. An unnamed archaeologist had excavated the remains of Native Americans where Pawnee people historically lived. Records show the ancestral remains had been in the possession of a museum in Baltimore since December 1975 and that the then-Maryland Historical Society had begun repatriation — a federal process in which institutions return ancestral remains and artifacts to their respective tribal nations.

Almost 50 years later, she was finally bringing them home.

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From Nebraska to Baltimore

The Baltimore Banner used a database created by the investigative news site ProPublica that tracks roughly 600 federally funded institutions — including museums and universities — around the country that still hold ancestral remains. ProPublica describes its data as a “minimum estimate,” as institutions self-report how many people the ancestral remains represent. The Banner’s reporting found that two Maryland institutions had more ancestral remains than the news organization reported. One of them is in Baltimore.

The Maryland Center for History and Culture — the Maryland Historical Society changed its name in September 2020 — never actively collected human remains. The Maryland Academy of Science donated a large archaeology collection, which included the remains of Marti Only A Chief’s relatives, to the center in late 1975. At the time, there was no state or federal law that restricted the practice in Maryland. The first legislative act in the U.S. that protected Native American graves was passed in Iowa in 1976, and the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was enacted in 1990.

The ancestral remains are from at least three people; two adults and a child, all uncovered in Nebraska. If there had been any other notes — and independent archaeologists often did not take them — they were lost in the last five decades.

Vivien Barnett had recently started working in the museum as a curatorial and collection specialist when she learned the center still had the ancestral remains. Her co-workers knew about their existence, she said, but no one had ever seen them. And those who had been working in the museum at the time had long retired or left the institution.

“We shouldn’t have this,” she thought. “How do we return it?”

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One of the museum’s storage areas — with likely thousands of artifacts — is in a large room with dozens of shelves and cardboard boxes that no one has gone through in decades.

Who’s to say how many times Barnett passed by that box, until the number on the side caught her eye? A year later, she had found the ancestral remains.

She carried the box to a remote room in the museum, hoping to minimize interaction with the ancestral remains. She took notes, writing descriptions of the pieces, how many people it may have represented, all as she researched how to preserve them and be culturally sensitive. And when she was ready, she reached out to a Repatriation Act program officer, where she informed them the center was not complying with the law.

As the officers navigated her through the process, she realized that someone in the center had already filed the initial paperwork to start repatriation — in 1997. In fact, the ancestral remains were nearly ready to be repatriated, Barnett said. Nancy Davis, a former deputy director of collections and interpretations at the museum, had reached out to the Pawnee Nation in March of that year, after archaeologists concluded the ancestral remains were found in the historically documented territory of the Pawnee. The process abruptly stopped.

Barnett filed the notice of completion of inventory last spring, which provides a summary of all ancestral remains and artifacts that were found, and contacted the Pawnee Nation. She did not hear from them for weeks.

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From Oklahoma to Baltimore

Elizabeth Blackowl. Only A Chief stared at the name on the document from the Federal Register. A Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act officer for the Pawnee Nation, she received all emails from public institutions who want to be notified they have ancestral remains and cultural artifacts. She has been at this position since 2019, though she has worked with the nation’s cultural resource division for years.

She was shocked to learn that her son’s great aunt and the first woman president of the Pawnee Business Council seemed to have been part of a repatriation process — and felt honored that she would get to finish it.

Elizabeth Ruth LeadingFox Blackowl, known to many as "Puggy"
Elizabeth Ruth LeadingFox Blackowl, known to many as "Puggy" (Courtesy photo)

When the law was enacted, the federal program was underfunded and slow. In a congressional hearing in 1995, Blackowl said the program had the means to work, but needed further federal investment. The National Park Services received 337 proposals in that fiscal year, Blackowl said, totaling $30 million in grant requests. The government could only fund 83 for $4.3 million.

After connecting with Barnett in July, Only A Chief waited to allow other nations to file a claim. The Pawnee Nation claims a majority of the ancestral remains in Nebraska, while other tribes claim some counties in the state.

By the fall of that year, she was preparing to drive cross-country.

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In September, she headed to the East Coast to take back the final ancestral remains before the last reburial of the year — heavy rain keeping her from seeing the road until Arkansas. She had done the same trip weeks before, stopping in New York, but this time drove south to Baltimore, where she met up with Barnett and other people from the center.

She didn’t know what happened between the form in 1997 and when the center reached out to the Pawnee Nation again. Maybe the process was stalled and fell through the cracks, or got lost in museum staff and council turnovers. She wished it had happened sooner, but she is thankful it happened.

“It’s bringing our people back.”

From left to right: Allison Tolman (previous chief curatorial and creative officer), Karen Gasior, Katie Caljean (president and CEO), Vivien Barnett and Marti Only A Chief. (Leslie Eames)

The roads ahead

Davis, now a curator emeritus at the National Museum of American History, didn’t know the museum had returned the ancestral remains until The Banner reached out.

She says she doesn’t remember much of her time at the center in Baltimore. She recalls walking into a storage room and finding the ancestral remains. She does not remember if she had entered the room with that exact purpose or she had come across them by chance — but she felt strongly that the museum should return them, she said.

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She remembers having a list of people to reach out to for the Pawnee Nation, rather than contacting a designated officer. Davis reached out to Blackowl in 1997, and said she might have sent another letter after not hearing back. The process, Davis said, was confusing. She can’t know for sure that she sent it to the right place, or if Blackowl had responded to her and the museum just never received it.

The rest of the ancestral remains in the Baltimore collection will require more research. Some of them have no records, Barnett said, making it virtually impossible to tell where they are from. Others could be from Western Maryland. Barnett found information from archaeologists who worked a site in the region through research in the museum archives. The next step is to reach out to tribes that could have been in the region around the time period, present them with the inventory summary and see whether they would like to make a claim.

Barnett will reach out to several tribal neighbors, prioritizing federally recognized tribes and also working with state-recognized tribes. It will take some time, she said, but she hopes to complete the inventory requirement of the repatriation law by the end of the year. The ancestral remains and any other artifacts will go to a proper home, Barnett said, but it will be up to the tribes to decide who should take them.

On a cold, cloudy day in November, Only A Chief reunited in Nebraska with others from the Pawnee council, she said, where the Pawnee people lived in the early 1800s. It is here where she will bury her relatives. The reburial grounds are kept secret to avoid tampering and for respect of the ancestors they lost. The sun came out only one time that day, when men laid their relatives to rest.

She always says she is not going to cry during these reburials. Pressure wraps around her chest as she looks at her relatives, wondering what kind of people they were. She imagined one as a boy and wondered if he was funny.

After they reburied her relatives, it started to rain.

“I think of it like that they were crying,” Only A Chief said. “Because they finally got to go home.”