Forest district to return human remains to Native American group

  • Nan Buckardt, the Lake County Forest Preserve District's education director, tells a committee about plans to give a collection of Native American bones and funerary objects to the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi.

      Nan Buckardt, the Lake County Forest Preserve District's education director, tells a committee about plans to give a collection of Native American bones and funerary objects to the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi. Russell Lissau | Staff Photographer

Updated 8/30/2016 12:02 PM

Human Native American remains that for decades have been part of a suburban museum's collection soon will be returned to a tribe with roots in this area.

Lake County Forest Preserve District officials plan to deliver the remains and related funerary objects to the Michigan-based Pokagon Band of Potawatomi. The Potawatomis have lived throughout the Great Lakes region, including northern Illinois, for centuries.


The artifacts belonged to 34 people and have been in storage at the Lake County Discovery Museum, a Wauconda-area facility run by the forest district.

"It's been a great responsibility to look after these remains all these years," said Diana Dretske, the district's collections coordinator. "But now we're doing the right thing for the tribes and their ancestors."

District officials are confident the deceased were Native American, based on burial practices and other evidence. Once returned, the remains will be ceremoniously reburied.

Marcus Winchester, the director of language and culture for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, worked with the forest district on the project. He said the Pokagons are committed to restoring the reverence owed to Native American ancestors.

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"These ancestors were placed into mother earth with the intention that they would meet their final resting place," he said. "Would one appreciate it if their grandparents were being dug up for the sake of another's leisure?"

The remains of at least 11 other Native Americans are in the district's collection, but their heritage isn't clear. District officials are negotiating the transfer of those remains to the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians, which has offered to care for them. That tribe also is based in Michigan.

All the artifacts -- including beads, bird skulls and seashells -- were part of the Discovery Museum's original collection. District records don't indicate when they might have been buried.

They were donated to Lake County in the late 1950s or early 1960s from the privately owned Lake County Museum of History, and ownership transferred to the forest district in 1989.


The remains and objects were on display in the Discovery Museum, which is in the Lakewood Forest Preserve, until the 1990 adoption of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. That law requires agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American cultural items to lineal descendants or culturally affiliated tribes. It also protects Native American burial sites and controls the removal of Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and cultural objects on federal and tribal lands.

The museum's artifacts were removed from public display and placed in storage once the law was enacted. They have been in environmentally controlled storage space in a secure room, apart from the rest of the collection, Dretske said.

Officials have tried to find a proper home for the remains for more than 15 years, Dretske said. They had neared a deal to turn them over to the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, which has the legal authority to hold such remains, but the museum closed temporarily last year because of the state's financial woes.

Forest district staff hired a consultant to find tribes willing to take the artifacts, said Nan Buckardt, the district's education director. That led to the Pokagon Band and the Sault Ste. Marie tribe.

District records indicate most of the remains were unearthed at sites in Lake County. One set came from McHenry County.

Officials won't divulge the exact locations, nor will they allow the artifacts to be photographed.

"There are some very prescribed federal laws on how we need to handle them," Buckardt said.

The forest board's education, cultural resources and public affairs committee approved the proposal Monday. A finance committee will review the plan Thursday, and the full board is expected to approve the transfer Sept. 13.

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