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UM hires repatriation coordinator to oversee return of Indigenous remains

Courtney Little Axe is UM’s new NAGPRA repatriation coordinator and collections manager.
University of Montana
Courtney Little Axe is UM’s new NAGPRA repatriation coordinator and collections manager.

The University of Montana (UM) has hired a new coordinator to lead efforts to return Indigenous remains held at the college back to tribal custody.

Courtney Little Axe began working on the repatriation of Indigenous remains and artifacts held at the University of Montana as an intern in the Anthropology Department in 2015. This spring, she returned to her alma mater as the first official coordinator of the university’s efforts.

“Watching it grow from 2015 to now, it’s pretty powerful, and it’s pretty meaningful for me to be able to fill this position,” Little Axe said.

Little Axe is Northern Cheyenne, Absentee Shawnee and Seminole, and grew up on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in southeastern Montana.

She has degrees from UM and Haskell Indian Nations University. Little Axe said it is crucial to have indigenous people leading the effort to return their cultural artifacts.

“Because if you don’t understand where these items come into play in a certain culture, then I don’t think you’ll understand the significance or importance of why we need to get them back,” she said.

A database of Indigenous remains created by ProPublica shows UM has made the remains of 42 Indigenous people available to return to tribes, while at least 25 are still being studied to determine tribal identity before they can be returned.

A law passed in 1990 requires federally funded institutions like UM to endeavor to return Indigenous remains and other artifacts to their tribes. So far, the university has struggled to comply with the law without a dedicated coordinator.

John joined the Montana Public Radio team in August 2022. Born and raised in Helena, he graduated from the University of Montana’s School of Media Arts and created the Montana history podcast Land Grab. John can be contacted at
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