The remains of nearly 5,000 Native Americans that were excavated long ago from earthen burial mounds by the Tennessee Valley Authority could soon be returned to their tribes, now that the agency has announced it is prepared to repatriate them after a decades-long wait.
The T.V.A., the largest federally owned utility, said in a notice filed on Wednesday in the Federal Register that it had meticulously tallied the remains of at least 4,871 people of Native American ancestry, a process it had begun 14 years ago. The agency obtained the remains as it built dams near Native American burial grounds and later gave many of them to universities and museums across the South.
Beginning on April 28, tribes across the country will be able to request that those remains be returned, the T.V.A. said. More than 1,000 funerary objects — which, like the remains, are still under the agency’s control — will also be returned.
“When you think about having relatives’ remains and cultural items returned to where they belong, it’s not just about that process of going back,” said Beth Wright, a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund and a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe. “It’s about the healing that comes along with that.”
A 1990 federal law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, set up a protocol for museums, colleges and universities to return remains and funerary objects to tribes. But those efforts have dragged on for decades as some institutions have questioned tribes’ links to artifacts in their collections, leaving many Native American leaders waiting after years without progress.
In the case of the T.V.A., officials began compiling an inventory of the Native American remains and cultural items in the agency’s possession in 2009. The agency said it has since worked with tribes to determine where the remains need to be returned.
“We’re taking this effort to be leaders and be partners with our tribes to get these items and the ancestors back where they need to be,” said Scott Fiedler, a spokesman for the T.V.A.
He added that the effort was rooted in “wanting to improve the lives of the people of the valley, both past and present, and doing the right thing.”
Still, some Native American leaders thought that the agency had taken too long.
“I feel like it’s about time,” said Emman Spain, the NAGPRA coordinator for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma, whose ancestors once resided across much of the present-day Southeast. “They should’ve been doing this 30 years ago.”
The Muscogee (Creek) Nation asked the T.V.A. to set aside a site in the Tennessee Valley so that the remains could be reburied as close as possible to where the tribe originally came from, Mr. Spain said. The agency and lawyers representing the tribe are close to reaching a deal for such a site, he said.
The Tennessee Valley Authority was created as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to harness the floodwaters of the Tennessee River and lift residents of the area out of poverty. But as workers removed mounds of dirt to make way for dams along the Tennessee River, Native burial sites were exposed, unearthing skeletal remains and sacred objects that had been buried for generations.
Some of the human remains that the T.V.A. collected, as well as artifacts like ceramics and hair pins, were housed at the University of Alabama, the University of Kentucky, Mississippi State University, Southern Illinois University and the University of Tennessee.
The remains that have been in the T.V.A.’s possession belong to several tribes that had roots in the Southeast, including the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The tribes were forcibly removed from their land by the U.S. government in the 1800s. About a quarter of the 16,000 Cherokees who walked what became known as the Trail of Tears died on their way to Oklahoma.
The Muscogee (Creek) Nation, which lost about 4,000 members during the displacement, refers to the forced removal as the Road of Misery, Mr. Spain said.
Tony Boudreaux, the director of curation and cultural resources management at the Cobb Institute of Archaeology at Mississippi State University, said the T.V.A.’s order last week reflected a wider push among some archaeologists to complete repatriations.
“There’s lots of people that are very pleased with this situation,” Dr. Boudreaux said.
At Mississippi State, a facility with a limited-access, climate-controlled area houses collections of artifacts in boxes and bags that are stored on shelves, including the remains of two people that had been in the possession of the T.V.A., Dr. Boudreaux said. They were found near a dam in Kentucky, but the dam was not connected to the T.V.A. Instead, he said, a Native American cemetery may have been looted in the area, and a T.V.A. archaeologist most likely picked up the remains that had been scattered near the dam site.
As of last year, remains of more than 108,000 Native Americans, along with more than 765,000 artifacts, were known to be held by museums, universities and federal agencies, according to the National Park Service.
In October 2022, the Interior Department said it would streamline the requirements for museums and federal agencies to inventory and identify the remains and objects in their collections.
Ms. Wright, the Native American Rights Fund lawyer, said she hoped others would quickly follow the T.V.A.’s example.
“When these items were taken, when they were held, when they were not disclosed to the tribal nations that they belong to,” Ms. Wright said, “that was causing harm to the tribal nations.”