COLUMBUS, Ohio — A recent investigation by ProPublica noted that the Ohio History Connection holds the remains of more than 7,000 Native Americans, along with more than 100,000 objects that individuals would have been buried with, such as jewelry or clothing. 

“The perception is maybe that things are just sitting in boxes unaccounted for. Everything's accounted for, all of the individuals are accounted for,” said Alex Wesaw, the OHC's Director of American Indian Relations. 

Wesaw is also a citizen of the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi tribe. 

What You Need To Know

  • The Ohio History Connection has collected and received donations of Native American artifacts since 1885 

  • The museum has the third-largest collection of Native American remains in the country 

  • The OHC is in the process of speaking with tribal governments across the country about returning remains to their rightful owner 

Wesaw said the museum is working collaboratively with tribes to tell history with a tribal voice in mind. 

“One of the important things about making decisions collaboratively with tribes is respect. And there are different customs and ways of knowing and doing things,” said Wesaw. 

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) called for those remains to be returned to tribes in the 1990s. 

But Wesaw said the process is a little more involved than that. 

“One of the things that the article misses the point of is, we have to work collaboratively with tribes to make decisions. It's not just a situation where we'll make a decision and it can be done,” said Wesaw.  

Later this year, Wesaw will work with representatives of 45 federally recognized tribal government partners on-site for their annual conference, where he said the goal is to learn from one another, consult and make collective decisions.

“We're working diligently with the little staff that we have that are working on this to hear their concerns. I certainly think there's frustration, and I would say as a tribal citizen myself, rightfully so. To try and get folks that are familiar with NAGPRA that are from tribes, are citizens of tribes, to relocate on a one-year grant is just likely not going to happen. So that means we better be creative in our funding sources,” said Wesaw. 

Wesaw said the project is going to be a lot of work, but he and staff are embracing the challenge. 

“I've been really inspired by the commitment by my non-native colleagues here at the Ohio History Connection that wish to do right by the tribes and wish to learn. I think we've come a long way and we've got a long way to go,” said Wesaw. 

Wesaw said the local NAGPRA team consists of two people. 

And although he won't put a timeline on the project, he said the process of returning the Native American remains to the rightful owners will take more than a few years.