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Photo: It's Our City via Flickr
The School District is consulting a Temple professor with how to handle the remains. Photo: It's Our City via Flickr

What is the Philly School District doing about the Native American remains found at Central High School?

The skeletal remains were found in a closet over the Summer and were once used as a teaching aid.

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The School District of Philadelphia is working to repatriate the skeletal remains of a Native American man found in a high school classroom closet this past Summer. 

This comes after other Philadelphia institutions have had recent reckonings on the treatment and display of skeletal remains belonging to people of color. 

In April, the Penn Museum disclosed that a staff member had displayed the remains of a child victim killed in the MOVE bombings in 1985 for an online course. 

In a letter sent to parents of Central High School students on Friday, Oct. 22, the District explained that the “human skeletal item” was previously used as a teaching aid, which dates back to the 1850s.

“No human skeletal teaching collections have been a part of the School District of Philadelphia’s curriculum for at least a decade or more,” the letter read.

In order to give these human remains the dignity and respect they deserve, the District has reached out to Dr. Kimberly Williams, Temple University’s Chair of the Anthropology Department, to learn and implement the proper handling methods. 

The District is also working with high school leaders to search for any other potential skeletal teaching items that may be stored in its high schools. 

“Dr. Williams will continue to work with the District to help assess any identified skeletal items to ensure that, if human, they are treated with dignity and respect, and properly secured, preserved and treated in accordance with regulations and laws,” the letter states. 

Central High School, founded in 1836, is the second-oldest continuously operating public high school in the country, and it is not the only high school to utilize skeletal remains as teaching tools.

Williams told PennLive that in early medicine around the world, the deceased would enter collections without their consent from cemeteries and other contexts, during an “era of inquiry about the differences between the ‘races.’”

“This is and was unequivocally wrong and unacceptable,” Williams said. 

Shannon O’Loughlin, chief executive and attorney at the Association on American Indian Affairs, said that researchers are unlikely to ever determine which of the hundreds of federally and state-recognized tribes the ancestor’s remains came from, especially if there are no records to show how or where the remains were obtained. 

“What normally happens is they’ll send what’s called a tribal leader letter, asking if their tribes are interested in participating and affiliating the remains and accepting them to bring that ancestor’s remains to rest,” O’Loughlin told PennLive.

Without records, federal officials will usually contact tribes with homelands historically related to where the remains have been housed. 

“It’s not going to be easy. Someone has stolen someone’s relative and used their remains for whatever reason, and in the process disconnected them from their people. And that’s not something that can easily be undone,” O’Loughlin said.

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