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VCU looks to repatriate Indigenous remains uncovered along I-95

An image taken along a chain-link fence. To the left is a busy interstate highway and to the right is a neighborhood street.
Scott Elmquist
VPM News
I-95 cuts through the center of Richmond's Jackson Ward neighborhood.

The remains have been in storage since 1975.

Virginia Commonwealth University is working to repatriate the remains of nine Native Americans that have been in storage since 1975.

The remains were initially uncovered as “part of the installation of Interstate 95.” VCU archeologists excavated two burial sites that contained the remains of at least nine individuals, the university stated in federal paperwork filed in March 2023 for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

The remains that VCU archeologists collected were analyzed and stored at an off-campus warehouse, university spokesperson Mike Porter said. They were “rediscovered” in January 2019, which prompted VCU’s department of forensic science to reexamine the remains.

Forensic scientists determined that the youngest remains were of an infant. An analysis of pottery found at the site suggested the burials were during the “Late Woodland period” between 900 and 1600 CE.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, also known as NAGPRA, was passed in 1990 to combat looting of Native American burial sites and sacred objects. It requires compliance from institutions that receive federal funds. Institutions must inventory the remains of any Native Americans they possess and consult with native tribes to arrange for the repatriation or disposition of those remains.

Violations can result in a civil penalty.

“Institutions have a backlog of tribes that they have to reach out to under the law, and then the tribes themselves are fielding those invitations to consult. So, that makes Virginia relatively unique,” said Olga Symeonoglou, an attorney with Cultural Heritage Partners.

NAGPRA will become of increasing importance, experts said, as Virginia institutions consult with the six additional Virginia Indian tribes that received federal recognition in 2018.

“When I talked to professionals who were doing NAGPRA cases that might relate to Virginia 10 years ago, they were consulting with tribes in the Carolinas because those were the closest federally recognized tribes,” said Laura Masur, an anthropology professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., whose graduate research looked at the repatriation process before federal recognition.

“It's completely changed the political landscape of what federal agencies are required to do, or universities or museums,” she said.

VCU reached out to 15 different tribes with federal and state recognition that had a historic presence in Virginia in August 2021, Porter said.

Richmond, and specifically Interstate 95, are along the fall line, a geographic feature that also mirrored cultural divisions among Indigenous people living in what is now Virginia, said Masur.

“When we're looking at the Late Woodland period, you typically will see communities east of the fall line, they're usually Algonquin speakers,” she said. By the end of the Late Woodland period, those communities organized into confederacies under a large leader, Masur said.

“The leader that we know best is Chief Powhatan, or Wahunsenacawh ... and this is something that the Pamunkey are deeply connected to, because they are really the most prominent politically in those confederacies.”

While consulting with the tribes, VCU “determined that there is no cultural affiliation between the human remains and any Indian Tribe,” the university wrote in the filing. But the Pamunkey Indian Tribe expressed interest in the ancestral remains, according to Porter.

VPM News contacted the chief of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, Robert Gray, who forwarded the request to the tribe’s cultural resources director. They did not reply by publication time.

VCU will make a determination about the final disposition of the remains after April 28 and repatriate them soon after, Porter said in an email.

According to an investigation by the nonprofit journalism site ProPublica, 10 Virginia institutions had the remains of 1,330 Native Americans and have made 342 available for return.

The Division of State Parks had the most, with 450 Native Americans’ remains, “the 43rd largest collection of unrepatriated Native American remains.”

The College of William & Mary made all its remains — Virginia’s 3rd largest collection, according to the ProPublica report — available for return. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts also has returned all of its remains, and it received a National Park Service grant in 2017 for repatriating remains.

NAGPRA still could be improved, the attorney Symeonoglou said: “Because institutions self-report, there are likely many institutions out there that have not told the National Park Service that they have human remains and sacred objects that are subject to NAGPRA.”

Leadership of Virginia Indian tribes met with Gov. Glenn Youngkin and First Lady Suzanne Youngkin Thursday at the executive mansion. VPM News asked if repatriation was discussed, and Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter replied with the following statement:

“The Governor and First Lady met with the Tribal Chiefs to further strengthen the ongoing relationship between the Commonwealth of Virginia and our Virginia Indian Tribes. They discussed the needs of the tribal communities, their storied history and culture, and the future of the Virginia Indian Tribes' partnership with the Commonwealth."

Jahd Khalil covers local government, the economy and labor issues for VPM News. Previously, he covered state government for RadioIQ and was a freelance journalist based in Egypt.