Sioux Receive Remains of 31 in Smithsonian Ceremony
Sioux Indian representatives said Saturday that the Smithsonian Institution gave them the remains of 31 tribal members. But the museum still holds the remains of 15,000 other American Indians.
The ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History on Friday was one of the most significant uses to date of a 1989 law that called for the return of Indian remains to their tribes.
“Our relatives were brought here against their will,” Everett Black Thunder said in an interview. “We want to take the spirits of these people home.”
Black Thunder is part of a delegation of 60 Sioux who traveled to Washington to retrieve the remains from Smithsonian officials. They erected a tepee and lodge in a park near College Park, Md., and are conducting a four-day ceremony of grief and mourning.
The remains will be returned to 40 acres of tribal land on the Sioux reservation near Sisseton, S.D.
The U.S. military in the 1860s dug up the remains of members of the Dakota tribe of the Sioux, which had been laid to rest in burial mounds in a five-county area around Sisseton.
Army surgeons performed scientific studies on the remains, Black Thunder said. The Army then gave them to the Smithsonian, which has held them for nearly a century, said Edward Red Owl, a tribal historian.
The Smithsonian has the remains of 2,000 other American Indians from North and South Dakota, including 300 to 400 Sioux, Red Owl said in a telephone interview from Sisseton.
Donald J. Ortner of the Smithsonian said the 2,000 figure “is about right.” The museum has custody of an estimated 15,000 skeletal remains of American Indians, added Ortner, chairman of the department of anthropology at the Smithsonian’s natural history museum.
Newly hired staff members are going through the remains to make sure they are returned to the correct tribe, a process that will take years, Ortner said.
The Sioux tribal council asked the Smithsonian in January to return all remains of American Indians taken from the 1-million-acre Lake Traverse Sioux Reservation near Sisseton.
Under the 1989 law, the government honors legitimate claims by American Indians for the return of their ancestors’ skeletal remains.