Since 1990 the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) has required all organizations that receive federal funds to notify and work in conjunction with Native American, Hawaiian, and Alaskan groups (within the United States) in order to eventually return (repatriate) skeletal materials (and some artifacts) that derive from these groups’ ancestors (see Expedition 45(3):21-27). To this end, the Museum has a fulltime NAGPRA coordinator (Stacey Espenlaub) and a standing NAGPRA committee dedicated to handling requests for information about any objects or human remains of Native American origin. As a result, the Museum has received many inquiries dealing directly with crania from the Morton Collection.
Morton’s profound interest in population differences and origins led him to spend much effort in amassing a large collection of crania from as many Native American groups as possible—these were then sampled and incorporated into his definitive volume, Crania Americana (1839). In the end, approximately one-quarter of the entire collection derived from such Native American peoples, while a roughly equal number came from the native peoples of Canada, Mesoamerica, and South America.
As of May 2008, over 200 skeletal remains have now been returned to Native American groups from among the vast collections of human skeletal remains housed in the Museum. Of these, approximately 100 derive from the Morton Collection, with the vast bulk of the returns being of Native Hawaiian ancestry—the Morton Collection had contained the second largest collection of Hawaiian skeletal remains curated within the continental United States.
At present it is difficult to say what NAGPRA and this process of repatriation will mean for the intellectual and research value of the Morton Collection. Fortunately, as part of the ongoing processes in place for recording the Museum’s human skeletal remains, each and every one of these specimens have been CT scanned, and copious notes and records have been accumulated for documentary purposes. In the future, we hope these records will provide the information needed to address new research questions, but if not, there is always the possibility that the Museum will be able to work effectively with Native American peoples on research issues that are of central importance to all the groups involved.