HomeAsian AmericansSmithsonian will return unethically sourced remains of Filipinos

Smithsonian will return unethically sourced remains of Filipinos

The Smithsonian Institute is returning the remains of Filipino people that its curator of physical anthropology Ales Hrdlicka had unethically collected in the early 1900s. The collection was to support his unsubstantiated research that White people were superior based on anatomical differences between races.

According to BenarNews, the institute announced the repatriation of the human remains of Filipinos to Manila on Tuesday.

“The [Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History] staff has had discussions with the Philippine embassy in [Washington] D.C. and met with the Philippine national museum staff to determine the path forward for repatriating the 64 individuals,” said Smithsonian Institution Chief Spokesperson Linda St. Thomas in an email to BenarNews.

The institute is in possession of the remains of 64 Filipinos, three or four of which died at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904.

When the U.S. acquired the Philippines from Spain in 1898, the country relocated Indigenous Filipinos to Arrowhead Lake in St. Louis County, the annexed U.S territory. Around 1,200 Filipinos resided in the 47-acre artificial village to be subjected to display at the 1904 World Fair, where fair officials described them as “primitive.”

Hrdlicka saw the fair as an opportunity to take the brains of deceased Filipino individuals and conduct autopsies. He used the bodies of one Suyoc and one Bontoc person, both of whom belong to the Igorot people, who are Indigenous to the Cordillera mountains in Luzon, the northern area of the Phillipines, reports the Washington Post.

Hrdlicka was also sent two brains, one of a Tagolog individual and one of a Muslim Filipino, by physicians from the fair, according to documents obtained by the Post.

Since the 1900s, the Smithsonian Museum has retained an unethically sourced collection of 30,700 human remains including 255 brains from Black, Indigenous peoples and People of Color. The Post reports that only four of the 255 brains were removed with consent from the individuals or their family members. Researchers acquired these remains of deceased individuals who were hospitalized, poor or estranged enough to not be reclaimed by relatives.

It was until Janna Añonuevo Langholz, a 34-year-old Filipino American activist and interdisciplinary artist, based in Missouri, began searching for gravesites of Filipinos who died at the World Fair in 2021. Her investigation into online Smithsonian records allowed her to uncover the cerebellum of a Suyoc Igorot woman that Hrdlicka had taken. This investigation is also what called forth the Post’s investigation into the collection and the Smithsonian.

Smithsonian officials told Langholz that they were unable to confirm the identity of the brain, who Langholz believes to belong to Maura, as it was most likely cremated. They told the Post that it was “likely incinerated between 1908 and the 1950s. Langholz was unable to recover the remains for a proper burial.

In April of this year, the Smithsonian issued an apology and announced the formation of a task force that would investigate the human remains in the institute’s possession and to engage with them in a respectful manner.

“At the Smithsonian, we recognize certain collection practices of our past were unethical,” said Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch III. “What was once standard in the museum field is no longer acceptable.”

The task force will be arranging for the repatriation of the human remains in the Smithsonian’s possession to their respectful family members and ethnic communities.

The Post’s report cites records that the institution is still in possession of brains from people of at least 10 countries, including Germany, the Czech Republic and South Africa.

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