Ishi, it turns out, is an exception. Ten years after Congress ordered Native American remains returned to their tribes, only 10% of the up to 200,000 remains estimated to be in public collections are even officially inventoried, federal records show.
With more than 8,000 Indian remains, the collection of the University of California, Berkeley, is third only to those at the Smithsonian Institution and Harvard. So far, however, the school has returned only an amulet and an earthenware jar.
While a variety of factors lie behind the delays, two stand out: Institutions have been slow to reveal their holdings to Indians as they try to match bones to tribes, and federal officials have been slow to do anything about the data that have been turned in.
Underlying the logistical logjam is a clash of science and sacrament--a struggle to balance the study of the rites of man with the rights of men.
"It really comes down to a distinction between thinking that you own remains or sacred objects versus understanding that you are custodians or stewards for them," said Martin Sullivan, a historian who recently completed eight years on the national advisory committee overseeing the repatriation law.
Scientists who see repatriation in terms of lost research opportunities are wrong, said G. Peter Jemison, repatriation coordinator for the Seneca Nation of Indians in New York State.
"They're going to come in contact with the living people, and they're going to learn so much more than they're ever going to learn by using a ruler,'' Jemison said.
When Ishi died in 1916, his brain was removed--against his request not to be autopsied--and his body cremated. His brain was sent to the Smithsonian, where it remained largely forgotten until a group of California Indians began searching for him in 1997.
Although Ishi was known as the "last of the Yahi," the Smithsonian ruled that Ishi had ties to a surviving tribe, which decided to reunite his brain with his cremated remains for burial in a secret ceremony near Mount Lassen.<>
"Hopefully, he will be, at last, at rest and at peace and free to join his family and ancestors," Mickey Gemmill, a member of the Pit River tribe, told the Mercury News before he and other tribe members went to Washington earlier this month to take custody of the brain.
The 1990 federal law requires all federally funded agencies and museums to return remains. Inventories were to be completed in 1995. After an extension and a threat of fines, Berkeley finally finished its inventory of remains on June 30.
About 17% of Berkeley's remains have been determined to be affiliated with a particular tribe, meaning they can be claimed. Three requests are pending.
Compliance with the law is overseen by the National Park Service, but there is a two-year backlog on publishing the legal notices required before some items can be returned, said John Robbins, NPS assistant director for cultural resources.
The parks service doesn't keep track of remains returned, only of remains inventoried.
Despite the headaches, Sullivan believes overall that the law is working.
"What's happened is there's finally a national standard that recognizes these human rights," Sullivan said.