Stephanie Gardner, the special collections librarian at Bridgewater College, has been pursuing the repatriation of funerary belongings and remains of Native Americans since 2011. Photo by Lindsey Hull.

Stephanie Gardner found meaningful work where she wasn’t exactly looking for it.

Where she was anticipating an archivist’s career of cataloging and caring for ephemera, papers and old photos, Gardner discovered her human rights initiative.

Twelve years ago, Gardner was hired as the special collections librarian for Bridgewater College’s Forrer Learning Commons, which was previously named the Alexander Mack Memorial Library. Since taking this position, Gardner has been diligently working to return to Native American tribes sacred funerary belongings and remains — items that are protected by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA.

The act, which dates to 1990, says that federally funded museums and institutions must work to return items that were removed from Native American gravesites to the tribes affiliated with the areas from which the items originated. There has been renewed interest in the repatriation process following the 2021 confirmation of Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who is the first Native American to ever hold a Cabinet post.

Gardner had heard about NAGPRA when she was in graduate school — she has a background in both library science and public health — and she knew that some institutions were still in possession of protected objects. 

“Lots of small museums and institutions have these objects. They were first used for medical studies, sometimes scientific study, sometimes, sadly, for curiosity,” she said.

But she hadn’t encountered any of them in her previous employment.

Gardner began working with the Bridgewater library’s collection of Native American artifacts shortly after becoming the special collections librarian in 2011.

The items in Bridgewater’s collection, which are housed in the Forrer Learning Commons, include funerary belongings and the remains of at least six people that were removed from gravesites in Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas.

She’d known when she applied for the job that the artifacts were there, but she quickly discovered that many of them are protected by NAGPRA. 

The items in Bridgewater’s collection — most of which were collected in the early to mid-20th century, Gardner said — include funerary belongings and remains of at least six people that were removed from gravesites in Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas, according to the NAGPRA database of objects and remains.

Gardner said that she notified Andrew Pearson, director of the Forrer Learning Commons, as soon as she discovered the protected items.

“There was no surprise there,” Pearson said, when asked about his reaction to Gardner’s discovery. 

Bridgewater College has owned many of these items since the Rev. Reuel B. Pritchett donated his collection to the institution in 1954. Most of the items were in the collection when the college received the donation. Others may have been added throughout the years, as other collectors followed suit and also donated their collections to the college. 

Most of the Native American items in the college’s inventory are everyday-use items — such as projectile points or mortars and pestles — that weren’t found at gravesites and aren’t protected under NAGPRA, Gardner said. These pieces may have been donated by collectors or found on private property, such as the time a large number of fishing lures were found on nearby farmland following a flood. 

Pearson says that Bridgewater made an unsuccessful attempt to repatriate the protected items shortly after NAGPRA was passed in 1990. But he said they were unable to identify the appropriate Native American tribes at the time, and he also cited difficulties surrounding staffing changes at the college. 

Until Gardner arrived in 2011, no other attempts had been made to return the protected items.

A complicated labor of love

Today, the items are housed in the library’s archives in the Forrer Learning Commons. Tall shelves fill the massive room, stacked high with archival-quality gray boxes of artifacts from varied cultures and communities from south-central Appalachia and beyond.

Other items are organized in trays, with dividers to keep objects in place and clear lids for viewing. Some of these boxes contain neon-colored sticky notes that read “funerary items — unaffiliated” or some variation thereof. 

More items, including the remains of Native American ancestors, are kept in a vault that’s the size of a small bedroom. The vault also contains collections of rare books, artwork and boxes upon boxes of student transcripts. 

Gardner said that some of the items had been stored, for a while, in glass display cases.

Upgrading the storage area has been a labor of love for Gardner. She has replaced many of the storage boxes with archival-quality units, labeled each box, and made sure that each container was accounted for during the library’s recent renovation.

But her job has been more complicated than that.

When Gardner discovered the protected items, she immediately began the process of repatriation, as designated by the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees NAGPRA. 

Gardner is not the only archivist to work through the process of repatriation in recent years. In the last 18 months, numerous museums have inventoried their collections and have moved to repatriate funerary items and remains of Native Americans to their tribes.

There have been reports of institutions that have been resistant to repatriation, but this is not the case for Bridgewater College; Gardner said that the school wholeheartedly wants to return the items to the tribes with which they are affiliated.

Updating the process

The repatriation process, as it stands now, is long and tedious. 

In 2021, the Interior Department began working to review and revise the regulations surrounding repatriation in order to streamline the process. 

“The repatriation of human remains and sacred cultural objects, and the protection of sacred sites is integral to preserving and commemorating Indigenous culture,” said Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland in a 2022 news release. “Changes to the NAGPRA regulations are on the way and long overdue.”

The release detailed those proposed updates, which were open to public comment earlier this year. The Interior Department also wants to incorporate input from more than 700 comments made by tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations, which brought up the need to address the barriers to timely repatriation. 

Gardner began her work prior to these developments. She first had to inventory and catalog each of the 4,000 items in the collection, even though the non-protected items will remain at the school. It took a couple of years to complete the initial stages of the project, she said. The inventory lists a name and description of each object, where it was found and other identifying information.

“It is an ongoing process as we learn more things about the objects from Native Americans. We make updates as needed,” Gardner explained.

The items that Gardner could tie to individuals or particular regions were submitted to the NAGPRA database in 2015. 

Once the inventory process was finished, the library sent letters to all of the federally recognized Native American tribes in Virginia, as well as to many other Native American nations across the United States. 

Among the groups that received the letters were the Monacan Indian Nation in Virginia and the Eastern Cherokee Indians in Tennessee. Bridgewater is actively working with both tribes to repatriate protected artifacts and ancestral remains. 

Before funerary belongings or ancestral remains can be returned to any tribe under NAGPRA, the tribe must file a repatriation claim and proof of cultural affiliation with the museums where the items or remains are housed. 

It’s a paperwork-intensive process that requires a lot of research, Gardner said.

“I let the people from other cultures tell me about the items, rather than me telling them,” she said. 

The tribes may use a number of types of evidence to show cultural affiliation, including oral tradition, historical evidence, expert opinions, kinship, and archaeological or anthropological research, according to the National Park Service’s website. 

Gardner said that the museum is then required to review the proof of cultural affiliation and decide whether the tribe has presented a preponderance of evidence. According to the 2012 NAGPRA handbook, museums have 90 days to review claims and make a decision.

Once the institution accepts the proof of cultural affiliation that the tribe submits, it then completes additional paperwork, including a Notice of Intent to Repatriate with the Federal Register, and then the repatriation can take place. 

“We want to complete the process as soon as possible,” Gardner said. “Our goal is to repatriate these artifacts to the people from which they originated when possible.” 

Thirty-three years following NAGPRA’s passage, and 12 years into her own work, Gardner is on the cusp of facilitating the repatriation of some of these items. 

Representatives from the Monacan Indian Nation visited Bridgewater in January 2022 to view the funerary belongings and ancestral remains. Gardner remembered that the representatives, who included a spiritual leader, met in the library and prayed over the remains of the Native American who may be affiliated with their tribe. 

Gardner said Bridgewater is finalizing the paperwork to complete the repatriation process but couldn’t say when that might happen.

“We will let the Monacan Indian Nation make an announcement,” Gardner said.

Reached by email, Lou Branham, a member of the Monacan Indian Nation and its museum director, declined to share details. “The repatriation process is ceremonial and private to our people and will not be shared with anyone from the public,” Branham said. Representatives from the tribe had no further comment. 

Several other museums and other institutions in Virginia have filed notices with the Federal Register in the last year indicating that their archivists and curators will soon follow in Gardner’s footsteps. This list includes the College of William and Mary, the Valentine Museum in Richmond, and Colonial National Historical Park in Yorktown.

“This is emotional labor because the work involves human rights,” Gardner said. “I’m an archivist. A lot of archiving is working with papers and old photos. Managing human remains from a culture that has been oppressed by a culture with which I identify has been humbling.”

Out of respect for the Monacan Indian Nation, the items in Bridgewater College’s special collections are not available for public viewing. Bridgewater placed a moratorium on using the NAGPRA-protected items for research in 2022, thus closing that collection to public viewing. With the exception of the protected items, the special collections department is open to visitors by appointment. 

Lindsey Hull is a 2023 graduate of Hollins University, where she studied English, creative writing, and...