VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Archeologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries believed looting graves was the right thing to do because aboriginal peoples, such as the Haida of the Queen Charlotte Islands, were thought to be dying out.
Museums wanted to chronicle their history and fate for posterity.
But the Haida didn't die out and for the past eight years they have been successfully negotiating with museums in North America for the return of their ancestors' remains.
This weekend, a delegation of 30 Haida travels to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago for the return of about 140 bones, skulls and some nearly intact bodies.
"Once we're done reburying these ones it will be close to more than 500 we've reburied from about seven museums and other private collections," says Lucille Bell, heritage officer of the Haida Repatriation Committee.
"There are some bodies involved with what we're bringing back from Field Museum. That's going to be difficult for the delegation to have to see," she said.
In recent years, the Haida people have persuaded world-renowned museums in New York and Oakland, Calif., as well as the Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec, the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria, British Columbia, and the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia to return Haida remains.
Helen Robbins, the Field Museum's repatriation specialist, said negotiations between the museum and Haida began about three years ago.
The Haida remains in the Field Museum were collected by archeologists during three expeditions to the Queen Charlottes, in 1897, 1901 and 1903.
"The thinking of collectors was they believed the Haida were dying out," said Robbins.
"During that time, people thought about races of people as opposed to ethnic groups, thinking they were substantively different in bone structure," she explained.
Collectors wanted to catalogue and document the differences between the races.
"They thought the Haida were dying out because there had been a devastating smallpox epidemic," Robbins said.
The Haida are not the only Native group to have had their graves looted. It happened to many other indigenous peoples, and many museums still keep those remains.
The Field Museum has remains from North America and overseas although none of them, including the Haida, are on display. They are kept in a special room with limited access unless there is permission from the tribe, said Robbins.
In the United States, the Haida have to contend with the Native Americans Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The Field Museum, Robbins said, didn't have to return the Canadian Haida remains because the U.S. law didn't apply, but decided it was the right thing to do.
The Haida are now negotiating with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Seven Haida remains are stored there, and Bell says the Haida are facing some resistance.
"They are kind of sticking to the NAGPRA law so they haven't repatriated to a Canadian tribe," says Bell.
Dorothy Lippert, a case manager at the Smithsonian, acknowledged that negotiations are under way. She said the institution has given the Haida two options to pursue but the matter is complicated by a different repatriation law, passed before NAGPRA, that governs the Smithsonian.