SPRINGFIELD – In an effort to increase recognition of Indigenous history and culture, lawmakers are considering measures to repatriate Native American remains and teach Native American history in public schools.
Last week, lawmakers approved both measures that seek to address past harms inflicted on the Native American community and shift how the state recognizes these communities in Illinois. They both head to the Senate for further consideration.
Native American remains
House Bill 3413, passed unanimously out of the House, would ensure a more concerted effort is made to return Native American remains and cultural artifacts to their affiliated tribal nations.
According to the legislation, the director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources would work with the director of the Illinois State Museum and federally recognized tribes with geographical and cultural affiliation with Illinois to determine the tribal identity of these remains. The remains and artifacts would then be returned to those affiliated tribes.
The measure would also allow for the creation of a cemetery in which repatriated Native American remains and materials may be buried. The public would not be allowed to use the cemetery and it would be protected by the state.
“[The bill] allows us to gather those remains and put them back where we got them, to reinter them, to have their own cemetery, to bury them with honor,” said Rep. Mark Walker, a Democrat from Arlington Heights and lead sponsor on the bill. “For cultural artifacts that are funerary artifacts, those become the property of the tribe most associated with those burials.”
The artifacts that were buried with the individual would then belong to federally recognized Indigenous nations who may loan them to the museum if they choose.
The measure would also create a Native American Review Group which would examine the impact of state projects on culturally or religiously significant properties. The group would have the authority to review any request made to IDNR for a land permit on projects that would disturb native remains.
The group would be appointed by the director of IDNR and consist of at least one tribal representative from each of the more than 30 tribal nations that have been identified as having a historical presence in Illinois.
HB 3413 also creates the special tribal repatriation fund in the state treasury. Subject to appropriation, the funds would be used for tribal repatriation or internment.
“These are the remains that have been gathered in Illinois for 200 years and they’re sitting in museums,” Walker said. “And so if we don’t appropriate the money, we have to find the money elsewhere.”
Despite the 1990 passage of the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, tribes around the country are still waiting on the return of their ancestral remains and cultural artifacts.
According to a ProPublica series tracking the return of Native American ancestral remains across the country, the Illinois State Museum has the second largest collection of unrepatriated remains in the United States. In the three decades since the federal law was passed, Illinois has only returned 2 percent of the 7,700 remains it reported to the U.S. government, or just 156 individuals.
“It’s time to turn back the clock and do it right and put these people back in the ground with honors,” Walker said.
Native American history
House Bill 1633, passed on a 75-32 vote, would require public elementary and high schools to include Native American history in their social studies curriculum, beginning with the 2024-2025 school year.
“Teaching our children true Native American history would not only teach them of the things we are ashamed of but also the contributions of Native Americans that have benefitted our state,” said Rep. Maurice West, a Democrat from Rockford and lead sponsor on the bill. “This bill is giving a voice to the very first of us.”
While the legislation does not actually create curriculum for the history course, it does specify the unit should include Native American contributions in “government and the arts, humanities, and sciences, as well as the contributions of Native Americans to the economic, cultural, social, and political development of their own nations and of the United States.”
The bill also requires the unit of instruction to include descriptions of large urban Native American populations in Illinois and, for grades 6 through 12, a section on the genocide of and discrimination against Native Americans.
While the Illinois State Board of Education will provide instructional materials and guidelines for the development of the curriculum, each school district would be required to develop it on their own.
The floor debate included pushback on the way the curriculum would be developed.
“I do want to stress to you, representative, that maybe when it goes over to the Senate, there should be someone included in this process that will hopefully make sure there’s an objective view when the curriculum is written,” said Rep. Anthony DeLuca, D-Chicago.
In particular, DeLuca was concerned about how Christopher Columbus would be represented in the unit of instruction, saying his story is essential to Native American history as well.
West, however, said he had no intention of changing the bill in the Senate.
“We are desensitized when it comes to a certain community of people and, so no, I’m not going to change in this bill in the Senate,” West said. “I’m standing firm on how this bill looks right now because there are people of Native American descent who need to know that this legislature stands for them.”
Additionally, the State Education Equity Committee, which provides recommendations for advancing equity in education, will also include a representative from an organization that works for “economic, educational, and social progress for Native Americans.”