Revealing the Smithsonian’s ‘racial brain collection’


On the day Mary Sara died of tuberculosis in a Seattle sanitarium, the doctor caring for the 18-year-old offered her brain to one of the most revered museums in the world.

A black and white photo of a smiling teenage girl standing on a rooftop in a city. She wears a long coat lined with fur and mukluks.
A photo of Mary Sara arriving in Seattle in 1933. (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Jan. 17, 1933)

The young woman — whose family was Sami, or indigenous to areas that include northern Scandinavia — had traveled with her mother by ship from her Alaska hometown at the invitation of physician Charles Firestone, who had offered to treat the older woman for cataracts. Now, Firestone sought to take advantage of Sara’s death for a “racial brain collection” at the Smithsonian Institution. He contacted a museum official in May 1933 by telegram.

Ales Hrdlicka, the 64-year-old curator of the division of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian’s U.S. National Museum, was interested in Sara’s brain for his collection. But only if she was “full-blood,” he noted, using a racist term to question whether her parents were both Sami.

A black and white portrait of a man with eyes furrowed and mouth downturned. He wears a suit and tie and looks to the side.
Ales Hrdlicka. (Harris & Ewing Collection/Library of Congress)
A torn piece of paper with text from a typewriter that reads “If the subject full-blood brain desirable.”
The telegram sent from Ales Hrdlicka to Charles Firestone in 1933. (Smithsonian Institution Archives)

The 35-year-old doctor removed Sara’s brain after she died and mailed it to Washington, D.C., where Smithsonian officials tagged it with a reference number and stored it in the museum, now the site of the National Museum of Natural History, alongside scores of other brains taken across the world.

A handwritten note in pencil on paper that says, “Mary Sara full-blooded. Died tuberculosis.”
This undated note describing Mary Sara with a derogatory term was probably written in 1933, when Charles Firestone sent her brain to the Smithsonian. (Smithsonian Institution Archives)

Nearly 100 years later, Sara’s brain is still housed by the institution, wrapped in muslin and immersed in preservatives in a large metal container. It is stored in a museum facility in Maryland with 254 other brains, amassed mostly in the first half of the 20th century. Almost all of them were gathered at the behest of Hrdlicka, a prominent anthropologist who believed that White people were superior and collected body parts to further now-debunked theories about anatomical differences between races.

A dark photo of a large building that looks like a castle with some windows lit up. There are lamps and cars in front of it.
The Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Most of the brains were removed upon death from Black and Indigenous people and other people of color. They are part of a collection of at least 30,700 human bones and other body parts still held by the Natural History Museum, the most-visited museum within the Smithsonian. The collection, one of the largest in the world, includes mummies, skulls, teeth and other body parts, representing an unknown number of people.

The remains are the unreconciled legacy of a grisly practice in which bodies and organs were taken from graveyards, battlefields, morgues and hospitals in more than 80 countries. The decades-long effort was financed and encouraged by the taxpayer-subsidized institution. The collection, which was mostly amassed by the early 1940s, has long been hidden from view. The Washington Post has assembled the most extensive analysis and accounting of the holdings to date.

The vast majority of the remains appear to have been gathered without consent from the individuals or their families, by researchers preying on people who were hospitalized, poor, or lacked immediate relatives to identify or bury them. In other cases, collectors, anthropologists and scientists dug up burial grounds and looted graves.

The Natural History Museum has lagged in its efforts to return the vast majority of the remains in its possession to descendants or cultural heirs, The Post’s investigation found. Of at least 268 brains collected by the museum, officials have repatriated only four.

The Smithsonian requires people with a personal interest or legal right to the remains to issue a formal request, a virtual impossibility for many would-be claimants, since they are unaware of the collection’s existence. A federal law mandates that the Smithsonian only inform Native American, Alaska Native or Native Hawaiian communities about any remains, leaving an estimated 15,000 body parts in limbo.

Documents that describe the remains collected by the Smithsonian.

The Post tracked down Sara’s relatives using Smithsonian documents. When reporters contacted them through the Sami Cultural Center of North America, they had no idea that her brain had been taken. Relatives said they were stunned that the institution never contacted them and are now seeking to have her brain returned.

“It’s a violation against our family and against our people,” said Fred Jack, the husband to one of Sara’s cousins. “It’s kind of like an open wound. … We want to have peace and we’ll have no peace because we know this exists, until it’s corrected.”

A black and white photo of a group of four people wearing ornate fur coats stands in front of a window outside. On the right side of the photo, a woman holds the hand of a small girl.
Mary Sara hides behind her mother, Kristina Ante, left, in Akiak, Alaska, circa 1920. Next to Mary Sara stands her father, Per Nielsen Sara, and her uncle, Per Ante. (Martha Sara Jack)
A woman with gray hair wearing a zippered sweatshirt looks at the camera. A man with gray hair in a plaid shirt stands next to her shoulder. He stares off camera.
Martha Sara Jack, first cousin of Mary Sara, and her husband, Fred Jack, at home in Wasilla, Alaska. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

The Natural History Museum said that in the last three decades it has returned 4,068 sets of human remains and offered to repatriate 2,254 more. Those remains belong to more than 6,900 people, because some sets include the remains of more than one person.

Due to the manner in which body parts have been catalogued, the museum does not know the exact number of body parts or people represented in its overall collection. Museum officials said they have made substantial progress repatriating remains, despite having a small staff devoted to the work.

While The Post’s investigation was underway, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III in April issued a statement apologizing for how the institution collected many of its human remains in the past, and he announced the creation of a task force to determine what to do with the remains. In an interview, Bunch also said it was his goal to promote repatriation.

“I know that so much of this has been based on racist attitudes, that these brains were really people of color to demonstrate the superiority of White brains, so I understand that is just really unconscionable,” Bunch said. “And I think it’s important for me as a historian to say that all the remains, all the brains, need to be returned if possible, [and] treated in the best possible way.”

The Post reviewed thousands of documents, including studies, field notes and correspondence from Hrdlicka’s papers, and interviewed more than four dozen experts, Smithsonian officials, and descendants and members of affected communities.

The museum’s brain collection was assembled by a network of scientists, U.S. Army surgeons and professors, records show. Officials from prominent institutions in the United States donated human brains to the museum. The Smithsonian still holds the brains of people from at least 10 foreign countries, including the Philippines, Germany, the Czech Republic and South Africa, records show.

Though top Smithsonian and Natural History Museum officials have long known about the tens of thousands of body parts held by the institution, the full scope of the brain collection has never been publicly disclosed. Even officials within the museum told The Post they were unaware of its magnitude until informed by reporters. Bunch said he knew “absolutely nothing” about the brain collection before he became secretary in 2019. He said he learned about it as the institution adopted a policy in 2022 on how to return objects and body parts taken without consent.

A close up portrait of a man in a suit with wireframe glasses looks down and toward a window.
Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III has apologized for how the institution collected many of its human remains. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

In addition to Bunch, several senior Smithsonian officials acknowledged in interviews the racism behind Hrdlicka’s work and said the anthropologist left a disturbing legacy that must be addressed.

The Smithsonian is a wide-ranging institution that spans research facilities, 21 museums and the National Zoo. The National Museum of Natural History, one of its premier attractions, holds the vast majority of the institution’s human remains. The only other Smithsonian museum with body parts is the National Museum of the American Indian, which said it still has 454 remains and has repatriated 617.

As The Post investigated, the Natural History Museum hired two researchers to look into the stewardship and ethical return of body parts and other objects. It also restricted access to human remains, and shared with The Post plans to relocate the brains. The brains are housed in a building across from a strip mall in Suitland, Md., in a large room with preserved carcasses of animals from the zoo.

A photo of an exterior of a warehouse building made of cement with three windows.
The Smithsonian Museum Support Center in Maryland houses the brains collected by the institution. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Many anthropologists and historians, as well as families, say they want the Smithsonian to do more, including to provide a commitment to contact anyone who may have a family or cultural interest in the remains. For some, the collection of brains — the center of intelligence and personality — is especially sensitive.

“These are deceased human beings,” said Samuel J. Redman, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who has written extensively about museum collections of human remains, “and in some cases, this represents the only part of their earthly remains that we know is still around, and an important touchstone to many of these communities.”

The worldwide trade in human body parts was in full swing by 1898 when U.S. Surgeon General George Sternberg transferred 2,206 Native American skulls from the Army Medical Museum to the Smithsonian’s department of anthropology at the U.S. National Museum.

Five years later, Hrdlicka (hurd-lich-kuh) took charge of the department’s new subdivision on physical anthropology and made it his mission to vastly expand the Smithsonian’s collection of body parts.

Hrdlicka, who was born in what is now the Czech Republic, received medical training from the Eclectic Medical College of New York City and the New York Homeopathic Medical College in Manhattan before moving into the field of anthropology. He was seen as one of the country’s foremost authorities on race, sought by the government and members of the public to prove that people’s race determined physical characteristics and intelligence.

A photo of an old newspaper shows a man looking forward. He wears a white coat with a tie and has white hair and a mustache. The headline over the photo reads, “Famous scientist flouts ‘Nordic superiority’ boast human groups forever rise and fall, says Hrdlicka.”
A newspaper with a story on Hrdlicka is stored at the National Anthropological Archives in the Smithsonian Museum Support Center. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

He was also a longtime member of the American Eugenics Society, an organization dedicated to racist practices designed to control human populations and “improve” the genetic pool, baseless theories that would be widely condemned after the Nazis used them to justify genocide and forced sterilization during the Holocaust. In speeches and personal correspondence, he spoke openly about his belief in the superiority of White people, once lamenting that Black people were “the real problem before the American people.”

“There are differences of importance between the brains of the negro and European, to the general disadvantage of the former,” he wrote in a 1926 letter to a University of Vermont professor. “Brains of individual negroes may come up to or near the standard of some individual whites; but such primitive brains as found in some negroes … would be hard to duplicate in normal whites.”

In a 1904 Smithsonian manual, Hrdlicka instructed others on how to collect body parts in vivid detail, including how to package a brain for shipment to the museum and conceal the marks of an autopsy. He wrote that the “racial brain collection” was necessary to research the brains of people across the world, especially Indigenous people and Black Americans.

He started collecting in the Smithsonian’s backyard. In a letter, he urged William Henry Holmes, a top Smithsonian official, to introduce him to doctors in charge of hospitals, morgues and medical schools in the Washington area. He also sought help from the D.C. anatomical board, which already furnished local medical schools with “unclaimed bodies” — corpses that had not been identified by family or friends, or came from families unable to afford burials.

His pleas worked: He eventually acquired 74 brains in the Washington area, the largest regional group within the brains still at the Smithsonian, according to records reviewed by The Post. Of those, 50 had race recorded, and 35 of those brains were taken from Black people.

Black people also stood out nationwide: Of the 77 brains taken within the United States that have race recorded, Black people represent the largest racial group, with 57 brains taken.

The Post found 96 accession cards that reference human brains still held by the Smithsonian.

Those cards and other records describe the 255 brains in museum storage.

One group stood out: 57 brains came from Black people who died in the United States.

Hrdlicka and other doctors eager to add to the collection often removed the brains from the deceased at institutions including Howard University, Walter Reed General Hospital, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland and Tulane University, according to records.

Representatives for the institutions said they have no record of the brains donated to Hrdlicka or they now have stringent ethical standards for dealing with body parts. “The medical community has thankfully moved far beyond the unethical practices of a century ago involving body and brain donations,” said Deborah Kotz, a spokeswoman for the University of Maryland School of Medicine, but she noted that people still voluntarily donate their own organs for research on Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS.

It is unclear whether Hrdlicka and other doctors took the brains illegally. Doctors may have exploited vague laws that governed unclaimed bodies. By the early 1900s, some states and D.C. had passed “anatomy acts,” which explicitly allowed students and doctors at medical schools to dissect unclaimed corpses.

Among the 255 brains still in the collection, only four are documented as coming from people or families who willingly donated their organs, according to Smithsonian records. The Post found no other records that indicate consent had been given.

Museum officials said internal records note the identities of 12 people from Washington whose brains were taken, but they declined to make the names public, citing privacy concerns.

In records that The Post reviewed, the names of the people whose brains were probably taken without consent from Washington are not recorded. Instead, their organs were marked with demographic details, such as their sex, age or race, using outdated language. One notation reads: “four negro brains and one lot of fetuses.”

In another case, an anonymous donor in 1914 sent the brains of two Black children from the D.C. morgue. The donor also sent the skeleton of one of the children. Museum documents describe them only as a 7-month-old girl and a biracial boy whose age is not listed.

A torn piece of paper showing a filled out form with typed letters. The text reads, “the following object (collected with/without the aid of a Museum outfit): 2 brains of American Negro children, obtained from the District of Columbia Morgue, January 28, 1914: one accompanied by skull and skeleton.”
A museum document shows the brains of two Black children were collected from the morgue in Washington. (Smithsonian Institution Archives)
A torn piece of paper with typewriter text. The date is January 8, 1947. The description says, “The two brains, one accompanied by skull and skeletal parts, described herewith have been in our collections, but uncatalogued, since the date of receipt, January 28, 1914. In the division record book under this date the following descriptions are recorded: 304. Brain of a male, Negro-White mixblood, age unknown. Brain weight, 430 grams. On the lower left hand side of the paper a six-digit number is written in ink.”
A museum document shows the brains of the two children were sent to the Smithsonian in 1914 but were uncatalogued until 1947. (Smithsonian Institution Archives)

The Post compared hundreds of death certificates at the D.C. Archives with the details noted in public Smithsonian records, but could not definitively make any identifications.

Even people who have studied Hrdlicka and the Smithsonian said they were unaware of the extent of the collection or that so many brains were taken from local Black residents.

Anthropologist Michael Blakey, who advises the Smithsonian on its National Museum of African American History and Culture, said he first heard about the brain collection from Post reporters. Blakey delved into Hrdlicka’s personal papers while working at the Smithsonian as a research associate nearly 40 years ago and is now one of the chairs of the American Anthropological Association’s Commission for the Ethical Treatment of Human Remains. In May, he was appointed to the Smithsonian’s new human remains task force.

When a historical Black cemetery in Manhattan was unearthed in 1991 amid construction work, Blakey helped ensure the remains were reburied and commemorated with a national monument. He said the Smithsonian could undertake a similar process.

Blakey said the Smithsonian must first identify and contact descendants or communities of the people whose brains were taken for the collection and seek their input. In recent years, Black anthropologists have pushed for federal laws requiring museums to offer repatriation for the remains of Black Americans. Others have advocated for the laws to be expanded to all human remains.

“I think there’s no reckoning thus far with African Americans,” Blakey said. The Smithsonian has made changes, including initiating repatriation efforts for Native American remains, only “because they had to, because the society caught up with them.”

When the U.S. government brought Indigenous Filipinos to St. Louis to be displayed at the 1904 World’s Fair, Hrdlicka saw an opportunity to collect brains from the people who lived in the newly annexed U.S. territory.

The United States had recently acquired the Philippines from Spain for $20 million, and War Secretary William Howard Taft sought to use the exposition to justify the occupation. For seven months, about 1,200 Filipinos lived in a 47-acre artificial village alongside Arrowhead Lake in St. Louis County. There, spectators who were mostly White gawked at the Filipinos, whom fair officials described as “primitive.”

An illustrated map of the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis shows green lawns divided by walking paths. There are drawings of small buildings.
An illustrated map of the 1904 World’s Fair, viewed from south to north. (Library of Congress)
A black and white photo of a man and a woman standing on a short flight of steps leading up to a thatched roof house.
A man and woman in the Philippine Exposition at the 1904 World’s Fair. (Jessie Tarbox Beals/Louisiana Purchase Exhibition/Schlesinger Library/Harvard Radcliffe Institute)
A black and white photo of two people sitting on the ground working looms, while another person stands looking at the camera. A small boy holds the threads of one of the looms.
People weaving at the Philippine Exposition. (Schlesinger Library, Harvard Radcliffe Institute)

That summer, Hrdlicka headed to St. Louis, hoping to take brains from Filipinos who died. There, he performed autopsies on a person from Suyoc and another from Bontoc. They were both Igorot, a term used to broadly describe Indigenous peoples from the Cordillera mountains of Luzon.

According to Smithsonian records, Hrdlicka returned to Washington with the brain of the Bontoc man but kept only the Suyoc Igorot’s cerebellum, the part of the brain at the back of the head responsible for balance, coordination and fine motor skills. Months later, documents show, fair physicians sent Hrdlicka the complete brains of two other Filipinos: a Tagalog person and a Muslim Filipino.

In spring 2021, Janna Añonuevo Langholz, a 34-year-old Filipino American activist and interdisciplinary artist in Clayton, Mo., learned of the brains while searching for the graves of Filipinos who died at the fair. Looking online for answers, she stumbled upon a Smithsonian record detailing Hrdlicka’s acquisition of a Suyoc Igorot cerebellum. She concluded it was from a woman named Maura, the only person from the Suyoc group whose death had been reported in the local press.

Maura was a Kankanaey Igorot woman who had traveled more than a month from her hometown of Suyoc to St. Louis in 1904. Pneumonia killed her shortly before the exhibition began on April 30. After the St. Louis Riverfront Times wrote about Langholz’s work in 2021, a curator at another Smithsonian facility, the National Museum of American History, contacted her to learn more.

With the hope of burying the cerebellum in either St. Louis or the Philippines, Langholz asked the curator to put her in touch with the Natural History Museum. Officials there, however, told her that the brain had probably been cremated. Smithsonian officials later told The Post that it was “likely incinerated” between 1908 and the 1950s, and said that officials had no evidence to conclusively identify the person whose cerebellum was taken.

Records show that the museum has cremated at least nine brains, with several of them listed as “desiccated,” meaning the brain was dried up. Laurie Burgess, who recently retired as the co-chair of the museum’s anthropology department, said cremating remains is a “long-outdated” practice and is not used anymore.

“It’s one of the most traumatic things I’ve learned,” said Langholz, whose work prompted The Post to investigate the brain collection. “I just spent so much time looking for her, I don’t think [the Smithsonian] understands how much this means to me.”

A color photo of a woman in present day standing in a field looking to the right. She wears a long skirt and has long black hair that falls past her shoulders. She is surrounded by trees and a blue sky.
Janna Añonuevo Langholz, a Filipino American interdisciplinary artist, is working to commemorate the site of the Philippine Exposition during the 1904 World’s Fair and the lives of the Filipinos who died in St. Louis. (Whitney Curtis for The Washington Post)
A photo of woman’s hands holding a black and white map of the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
Langholz holds a map of the Philippine Exposition. (Whitney Curtis for The Washington Post)
A photo of a woman’s hands holding a yellow and red pamphlet that says “Philippine Exhibition World’s Fair 1904” and has a photo of a man on the cover.
Langholz with a brochure. (Whitney Curtis for The Washington Post)

Smithsonian officials told The Post that, in addition to the four brains from the fair, the museum had collected the brains of 23 other Filipinos.

Some of those brains were taken from patients at the Philippine Medical School, and others by U.S. Army officials who worked with the Smithsonian to collect skeletal remains and objects around the Philippines, records show. Officials with the medical school, now known as the University of the Philippines Manila College of Medicine, said human remains are accepted only with consent.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, who is Kankanaey Igorot Filipino and a former U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, said the remains at the Smithsonian must be returned so that Igorot communities can perform rituals for their dead.

When those practices are not performed, she said, the deceased are not at rest. “For Indigenous people, it’s not just an issue, of course, of a violation of their rights,” she said. “It’s also an issue of spiritual consideration.”

Leonardo Padcayan Buyayao, a designated Indigenous representative from Maura’s hometown, said the museum disrespected her community twice: by taking the brain without permission and by cremating the remains, which is discouraged in their culture.

He and other Kankanaey leaders in Suyoc, many of whom are relatives of Filipinos who went to the 1904 World’s Fair, said they hope to build a memorial for Maura. “What happened to our sister hurts our hearts,” Buyayao said.

After The Post began reporting, the Smithsonian contacted the Philippine Embassy in D.C. with information on the human remains in the museum’s possession. Embassy officials said they have met with Smithsonian staff to discuss the remains.

The brains from the Philippines represent the second largest group outside of the United States, after Germany. There, a pathologist named David Paul von Hansemann sent the Smithsonian the brains of 49 impoverished people whose bodies were unclaimed between 1908 and 1912, records show.

Unlike many of Hrdlicka’s procurers, von Hansemann included the names of the people whose brains he had taken. Despite having the details, the Smithsonian has not returned any of those brains.

As Hrdlicka built his collection, the brains were advertised in newspapers and magazines as available to researchers. In one case, he lent three to another scientist, according to an anthropology journal that Hrdlicka founded in 1918.

The extent of Hrdlicka’s own research on the brains is unclear. When a professor wrote to him and asked about the differences he found between the brains of people of different races, he replied that research studies showed the superiority of White brains, without citing any studies of his own. He published a 1906 study on brain preservatives, recording the weight of human and animal brains and comparing how they fared in a chemical solution. But The Post found no other research on the brains by Hrdlicka.

While skulls and other bones were sometimes displayed at World’s Fairs or traveling exhibits, The Post found no evidence that the Smithsonian’s brain collection was ever publicly exhibited. Hrdlicka drafted proposals for the collection of brains to be included in Smithsonian exhibits on race, but the institution never agreed to fund them, according to Redman, the historian.

Redman found one instance in which casts of the brains were put on display: For the 1921 Second International Exhibition of Eugenics hosted at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Hrdlicka showcased three casts alongside the brains of primates. A report on the exhibit described the human brains as “racial brains, showing extremes of variation.”

Hrdlicka managed the Smithsonian’s brain collection until he died at age 74 in 1943, in the midst of World War II and the Holocaust. By then, most researchers had started to abandon the baseless theories behind eugenics and race science, and interest in the collection dwindled. The Smithsonian acquired only four brains after Hrdlicka’s death, three of which were donated by the individuals or their families.

A bar chart, with an x-axis of years, from 1840 to 2020, and a y-axis of body parts collected, from 0 to 6,000. The chart resembles a bell curve, with the most body parts collected between 1900 and 1940. A note below the chart reads: “Hrdlicka was a curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s U.S. National Museum from 1903 to 1943.”

For years, the brains lingered in storage, largely forgotten, until tribes and other activists in the 1990s forced the Smithsonian and other museums to begin to repatriate Native American remains. In 2010, the collection was moved from the Natural History Museum to the Maryland storage facility. Asked about the current condition of the brains, Burgess and Bunch both said they had not seen them. Burgess said they are stored in a temperature-regulated room under “the highest museum conservation standards.”

The Smithsonian said the brain collection is no longer studied. Other than a 1999 assessment by an expert to verify the identity of one brain, there are no records of any research after Hrdlicka’s death, officials said.

Researchers, however, sometimes still make use of other human remains in the museum’s possession. Douglas Owsley, a curator in the museum’s biological anthropology division, said he uses the collections for studies on historical communities and populations, and the skeletal remains as references to help identify human remains for law enforcement in criminal cases.

The Smithsonian announced temporary restrictions on the use and collection of any human remains this January. Officials said research today must be approved by two top Smithsonian officials. Almost all of the human remains are in storage, but the Natural History Museum has a few human skeletons on display, including those of people who donated their own remains and Egyptian mummies.

Officials declined to allow reporters to view the space in which the brains are stored, saying they were doing so out of respect for the deceased. The institution says it now allows only descendants or members of related communities to view the brains.

Five people told The Post they were granted access in the past. Patricia Afable, a Filipino anthropologist who once worked at the Smithsonian, had been studying the Filipinos at the 1904 World’s Fair in the 1990s when she learned about the brains taken at the exhibition and went to see them. Horrified, Afable began speaking to them in her grandmother’s language, Ibaloy, she said. “You’re here,” she recalled saying.

The Smithsonian largely has its own set of rules as a nonprofit, taxpayer-subsidized entity. Created by Congress in 1846, the institution receives more than $1 billion in federal money annually — two-thirds of its total budget — and is staffed mostly by federal employees. But it is not a government agency.

In 1989, Congress passed legislation creating the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, requiring the institution to inventory its Native American remains and send those lists to relevant tribes. About half of the remains held by the Smithsonian are Native American, officials said.

The following year, a more extensive repatriation law for Native American remains was passed for all museums that received federal funding, except the Smithsonian’s. That law also required those museums to notify tribes about their Native American holdings, and that those notices be published by the secretary of the interior. The law also created a committee to report progress on repatriations to Congress.

For about two decades, the Smithsonian did not publicize its progress on repatriating Native American holdings. In 2012, the Smithsonian began providing Congress with the information at the recommendation of the Government Accountability Office.

The Smithsonian has no obligation to offer repatriation for what it refers to as “culturally unaffiliated remains,” which are Native American remains that were not determined by the museum to be from a specific federally recognized tribe or Native Hawaiian community. In 2020, however, it adopted a policy to review repatriation requests for those remains.

The Smithsonian is not subject to federal open records law, but has a policy that it says “follows the spirit” of such rules. The Natural History Museum released an inventory of all of its human remains to The Post that included the states or countries where remains originated but declined to disclose cities or specific addresses. Burgess, formerly with the museum’s anthropology department, said the institution wants to protect graves from being looted.

A dark photo of a white stone building that is lit up. A person walks in front of the building. There are trees and cars in front of the building.
The National Museum of Natural History. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
A daytime photo of the exterior of a museum that has curved architecture and a large window. People walk in front of the building.
The National Museum of the American Indian. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Bunch said that he is open to increasing transparency at the institution, and that he welcomed scrutiny if it helped improve the Smithsonian. “If there are steps we need to take, we will,” Bunch said. “I am very confident that I am less interested in secrecy and more interested in openness.”

The Natural History Museum said its leadership has taken steps to repatriate remains outside of Native American communities. In 2015, the museum created an international repatriation policy for human remains under its director, Kirk Johnson, according to Burgess.

The next year, the Natural History Museum conducted its first international repatriation of human remains, returning the remains of 54 Indigenous people, including the heads of four Maori people, to New Zealand. The only international repatriations have been to New Zealand, Australia and Canada.

Like the Smithsonian, museums across the world are grappling with their collections of human remains. In Philadelphia, community protests recently pushed the Penn Museum to take steps to bury the skulls of likely enslaved Black Philadelphians that were part of collections by Samuel George Morton, a world-renowned scientist from the University of Pennsylvania.

A black and white photo of an open gravesite with dozens of boxes. People stand next to the ground and are gathering for a ceremony.
The bones of several hundred Native Alaskans are reburied in Larsen Bay in 1991 after local residents sought to have the remains returned by the Smithsonian Institution for years. (Marion Stirrup/AP)

Bill Billeck, the former program manager of the Natural History Museum’s domestic repatriation office, said the office’s workload and limited staffing often prevent it from initiating contact with families and other groups. The office, which has an annual budget of about $1.5 million, is handling 13 repatriation claims that include about 2,000 sets of human remains.

“Sometimes we can be proactive in our assessments,” said Billeck, who recently retired. “Other times, we’re just reactive because there’s enough work for us to do. We don’t have enough staff.” He commended the institution’s progress on repatriation, saying that the Smithsonian has some of the “largest responsibilities” worldwide. “I don’t think any other museum in the country comes close to how much we’ve done,” he said.

A ProPublica investigation published in January found that at least three institutions with far fewer human remains than the Smithsonian — the Interior Department, the University of Alabama and the Tennessee Valley Authority — have returned or made available for return over 10,000 remains each, more than the 6,322 sets of remains the Natural History Museum said it has returned or offered for repatriation.

Smithsonian officials noted that in some cases, descendants or cultural heirs want remains to stay in museum custody, often because of religious considerations. Bunch, the Smithsonian secretary, said the institution may need to find ways to commemorate the remains that cannot be identified, such as an honorary mass grave in Arlington National Cemetery.

Some tribes and other families believe the institution needs to move faster. Dyan Youpee, the director of the cultural resources department for the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes in Montana, said she contacted the institution to ask about tribal objects and remains in its possession, including the skull of a child.

“If I put in a request, it’s still going to take 10-plus years because of the board, because of their policy … because of their excuses for being undermanaged,” she said. “The majority of tribal institutions can say the same, that we’re understaffed, but we’re making waves in our management. There’s no excuse.”

Smithsonian officials said they gave her no timetable. They have said that research required for repatriation is challenging and complex, and that they have worked hard to strengthen the relationship between Native American communities and the museum.

AlexAnna Salmon, the president of the Igiugig Village Council in southwestern Alaska, said that in 2015 the tribal council requested the repatriation of remains that were taken by Hrdlicka in the 1930s. When the Natural History Museum sent the remains back to Alaska in 2017, Johnson, the museum director, traveled to the remote village for the reburial. “They never questioned my authority,” said Salmon, who joined the museum’s advisory board in 2020. “It was done with the utmost respect.”

Even when remains are repatriated, some people are still haunted by the harm done to their ancestors. In 2007, the Smithsonian returned the brain of a 10-year-old boy to a Tlingit family from Sitka, Alaska. The youngest of six children, George Grant had died in 1928 of tuberculosis in a government hospital in Juneau, where Firestone then removed his brain.

Grant’s brain is now buried in a family cemetery in Sitka, but his body is in an unmarked grave 90 miles away in Juneau. Lena Lauth, the granddaughter of Grant’s late sister, said she cannot forgive the Smithsonian. “How could they hold a child’s brain for 70 years, and know who he is?” she said. “It was my grandma’s pain, and now that she’s gone, it’s my pain.”

A woman places a small cross in the ground with flowers on it. She bends at the waist. She is surrounded by trees.
Lena Lauth places a cross above where the brain of George Grant, a relative, is buried in Sitka, Alaska. Firestone took his brain after he died in 1928 and sent it to Hrdlicka without permission. The brain was returned to the family in 2007. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
The front page of an old newspaper shows a photograph of a man with white hair kneeling and looking at the ground. The headline reads, “Route of America’s First Immigrants Traced from Asia Down the Alaska Coast by Dr. A. Hrdlicka.”
A newspaper article about Hrdlicka on a research visit to Alaska. (Daily Alaska Empire, Nov. 5, 1933)
An aerial photograph of a green cemetery shows graves laid out in a row. A few graves also form a circle in the upper righthand corner.
Grant’s body is buried in an unmarked grave at a cemetery in Juneau, Alaska, while his brain is buried in a family burial site in Sitka. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

As Mary Sara and her mother explored Seattle, reporters followed them with intense curiosity. Newspapers published photographs of the pair wearing thick, reindeer-skin coats called “parkys” and described the women in captions using a term offensive to many Sami people. “I think automobile riding is a lot of fun,” Sara told reporters. “At home I always ride in dog sleds and on reindeer.”

They had come to Seattle from Akiak, Alaska, in January 1933 at Firestone’s invitation so that he could perform cataract surgery on Sara’s mother, Kristina Ante, who was blind. Firestone had once run the hospital for Native Alaskans in their hometown and was waiting for them at the dock when they arrived, according to a newspaper article.

After only a week in Seattle, Sara fell ill with tuberculosis and was sent to a sanitarium. She stayed about four months, spending her 18th birthday there. And in May, as her mother started the voyage back to Alaska alone after regaining her sight, Sara’s health continued to decline. While her mother was on the ship, Sara died.

Documents do not say when Firestone removed her brain and sent it to the Smithsonian, but a newspaper reported that a funeral was held for Sara shortly after she died. The rest of her body was buried in a Lutheran cemetery in Seattle. The Post found no record that her parents allowed Firestone to take her brain.

Twelve years later, her cousin Martha Sara Jack was born in Alaska. Jack’s mother told stories about how Sara, her niece and best friend, had gone to Seattle and had plans to marry when she returned. Her mother described Sara as the “angel” who had left their family too soon.

Over time, Jack inherited mementos from her cousin: child-sized reindeer-skin boots that Sara had made, Christmas ornaments, and one of the newspaper photographs from Sara’s first days in Seattle, showing her smiling on a hotel rooftop.

A photo of a picture frame on a wooden shelf. Two small fabric dolls in dresses are on either side of the photo. The picture frame is silver and holds a black and white photo of a smiling young girl on a rooftop in a city. She wears a long fur coat and mukluks.
A photo of Sara at the home of a first cousin, Martha Sara Jack, in Wasilla, Alaska. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

After the family learned from The Post about Sara’s brain, they emailed the Natural History Museum’s repatriation office and asked for the institution to release the organ so they could bury it with her body in Seattle. Jack, a 77-year-old retired nurse and social worker, said she believed Sara’s parents never knew that Firestone had taken her brain and sent it to the Smithsonian.

“That’s a violation of anybody’s trust or humanity, ” she said. “It’s inhumane. It’s not science anymore. It’s like barbarism or ghoulish harvesting.”

Asked about the family’s concerns that they weren’t notified about the brain by the museum, officials said they have worked primarily on repatriation for Native American tribes and only recently begun to focus on other communities, such as Sara’s.

In Seattle, a distant cousin of Sara’s, Justin McCarthy, did not know about her existence until contacted by reporters. When The Post told him where she was buried, McCarthy realized that he drives by her grave every day on his way to work at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. As a doctoral student in archaeology, he has long dreamed of working for the Smithsonian. He has been to the institution’s research facility in Maryland and stood unknowingly in the same building as the remains of his relative.

One day in March, his mother, Rachel Twitchell-Justiss, flew in from Spokane so they could visit the Lutheran cemetery together, probably the first time relatives have visited Sara’s grave. As they walked through the Seattle wind, they used information from the cemetery’s office to find her burial plot.

An article in an old newspaper with a headline “Arctic mother regains sight but loses girl.” Next to the article is a photo of an indigenous woman in a long fur coat with a hood.
A newspaper article on Sara’s death. The doctor who treated her mother for cataracts offered her brain to the Smithsonian. (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 29, 1933)
A photo of a man wearing a blue sweatshirt holds out a clear plastic bag holding indigenous artifacts in the storage area of a museum.
Justin McCarthy, Sara’s distant cousin, shows Sami clothing at the Burke Museum in Seattle. He did not know about her existence until reporters contacted him. (Jovelle Tamayo for The Washington Post)

McCarthy bent down to inspect the moss that blanketed her unmarked grave and compared it to the lichen her family would have used in Alaska to feed reindeer, commonly called reindeer moss. The two stood briefly in silence before McCarthy pulled out his phone to play a traditional Sami song called a joik.

Standing over her grave, they resolved to get her a headstone. The next month, the Smithsonian’s board approved giving Sara’s brain to the family. But officials rejected their request to pay for the burial and a headstone, which could cost an estimated $6,400. Billeck, the former program manager of the repatriation office, said in an email to the family that “all past returns of human remains” have excluded burial expenses.

The family does not know how they will fund it, but they plan to bury Sara’s brain with her body in Seattle. “We can’t change what happened,” Twitchell-Justiss said. “But we can change how she’s honored and respected.”

About The Collection

A Washington Post investigative series on human brains and other body parts held by the Smithsonian.

Have a tip or story idea about the collection? Email our team at


To accurately reflect the racism that was common at the time in newspaper articles and official documents, The Post chose to show original records that contain language considered offensive by modern standards.

To analyze the Smithsonian’s collection, The Post requested and obtained inventories of human remains from the National Museum of Natural History. Those inventories included location, year, and an accession or catalogue number. Reporters obtained demographic data from public accession files at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

By comparing inventories with accession files, The Post determined that at least 268 brains had been collected to date. That includes 255 brains the museum still has in its holdings, four brains that have been repatriated, and nine brains that have been cremated, records show. The Post found records indicating that additional brains were sent to the museum but are no longer in its possession. The Smithsonian declined to research the status of some of those brains and said it would be unable to account for all brains because of prior collecting and documentation practices.

About this story

Regine Cabato, Alice Crites, Magda Jean-Louis, Monika Mathur, Nate Jones and Andrew Ba Tran of The Washington Post contributed to this report.

Alexander Fernandez, Nami Hijikata, Soléne Guarinos and Lalini Pedris of the American University-Washington Post practicum program contributed to this report.

Editing by David Fallis, Sarah Childress, Aaron Wiener. Copy editing by Anjelica Tan, Kim Chapman and Jordan Melendrez.

Project editing by KC Schaper with additional support from Tara McCarty.

Design by Tara McCarty and Audrey Valbuena. Digital development by Audrey Valbuena. Print design by Tara McCarty. Additional design by Laura Padilla Castellanos. Design editing by Christian Font and Christine Ashack.

Photos by Salwan Georges, Whitney Curtis and Jovelle Tamayo. Photo editing by Robert Miller and Troy Witcher.

Graphics by Artur Galocha and Adrian Blanco Ramos. Graphics editing by Manuel Canales.

Videos by Dmitry Surnin and Jovelle Tamayo. Video producing by Jayne Orenstein. Video editing by Joy Sharon Yi

Additional editing, production and support by Jeff Leen, Jenna Lief, Matt Callahan, Junne Alcantara, Sofia Diogo Mateus, Grace Moon and Matt Clough.


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