Daily Herald opinion: Illinois Senate should pass Native American repatriation bill


This editorial is a consensus opinion of the Daily Herald Editorial Board.

Odds are pretty good that the first time you saw a dead person was at a museum. If not there, then a funeral.

Think about the different reactions you’d have to seeing a family member or a friend in a coffin versus seeing a mummified person in a display case under glass at a museum.

You’d express sorrow and reverence at the funeral home, whereas you’d view the body at the museum as a curiosity.

You would look in horror if it were your grandmother’s skeleton there for the world to inspect in a museum, perhaps a bit less so if it were your great-great-great grandmother. You still might wonder under what circumstances someone dug her up to put her on display.

This is the reasoning behind a movement in Illinois to establish a Tribal Repatriation Fund, which could be used solely for helping to rebury Indigenous ancestors and the stuff with which they were buried. The fund would be created through penalties paid by those who knowingly disturbed burial sites.

State Rep. Mark Walker, of Arlington Heights, introduced the bill after hearing concerns from leaders of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation.

Walker holds a master’s degree in anthropology.

“These people were buried by their people with the goods they wanted to be buried with in spaces they wanted to be buried in, and (we) disturbed that,” Walker told ProPublica. “Just go repair it. It’s so simple.”

The proposed law differs from one already on the books for the past 34 years, in that the state of Illinois would no longer be the owner of Native American remains — the Native American nations would be. This is something tribal nations have been pushing for for three decades.

And it’s about time their wishes are honored.

ProPublica earlier this year revealed that the remains of at least 15,000 Indigenous people who were exhumed in Illinois have not been returned.

“We’re grateful for the bipartisan support we’ve received from Illinois legislators who are working to right historic wrongs that have, put simply, diminished us,” Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation Chairperson Joseph “Zeke” Rupnick told ProPublica in a recent story. “This legislation brings respect to our history and our ancestors the way they should’ve been respected centuries ago.”

Empathetic people should understand why this is so important. Every one of these people whose graves were dug up was a son or daughter, brother or sister, parent or grandparent.

For some of us, time has a way at chipping away at the emotional connections to our ancestors. For many Indigenous people, it’s quite the opposite. With unanimous approval in the Illinois House, it now goes to the Senate.

As Walker said, “I don’t know what right we have to dig up somebody’s grandmother.”

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April 19, 2023 at 07:03AM

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