Nebraska Geography Professor Discusses Fossil Dispossession of Sioux Lands at Geological Museum Lecture


Lawrence W. Bradley, an environmental geologist at the University of Nebraska Omaha, argued in a lecture last Thursday that fossils taken from Sioux lands should be considered dispossessed Sioux property.

The lecture — broadcast in a hybrid format — examined the influence of fossils extracted from Sioux lands on vertebrate paleontology, mapping out a long history of fossil dispossession stretching from the early 1800’s to the present day. The event was hosted by the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture.

“What is the historical geography between the Lakota paleontology, museums, and universities?” Bradley said at the outset of the lecture. “I hope to convince you that the fossils had been dispossessed from the Great Sioux Nation.”

“Many people think that water, land, coal, timber, minerals, and those types of resources were collected and dispossessed from Native Americans, but we must also think of paleontological resources,” Bradley said in an interview following the event.


Bradley serves on a natural resources board and the Native American Advisory Council in Omaha and has urged state legislators to protect fossils found on Native American lands. He is also a member of the Diversity Committee of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology.

Bradley’s research examines the history of fossils taken from Native American lands, finding that for hundreds of years, paleontologists have dispossessed Native American tribes of fossils without consent or consultation.

These fossils helped establish American vertebrate paleontology at the expense and neglect of Native American tribes, Bradley contends.

Bradley began this research as a graduate student, leading to a doctoral dissertation titled, “Dinosaurs and Indians: Paleontology resource dispossession from Sioux lands.” In the paper, Bradley outlined the expansive history of fossils removed from Sioux lands without consent. He argued that to resolve disputes between tribal groups and paleontological researchers, it is critical to engage with the historical geography of fossil dispossession.

In the interview, Bradley called the dissertation “perhaps the first” study to argue and substantiate that large volumes of fossils had been taken from Native American tribes.

Bradley said during the lecture that the idea for the dissertation came to him when the University of Nebraska and Nebraska Department of Roads removed a plesiosaur skeleton from the Santee Sioux Reservation.

“That was my ‘eureka’ moment,” Bradley said. “I said, ‘Well, if this fossil’s being dispossessed, then how many, how long, and how much?’”

Bradley, who was raised by Oglala Lakota from the age of two, said he viewed it as “blatant discrimination” that the University of Nebraska did not include students from the Santee Sioux school in the dig.

The University of Nebraska did not respond to a request for comment.

Bradley said educational institutions such as universities and museums should be “held accountable” in the interview, citing the fraught history and lack of collaboration between paleontological researchers and Native American tribal governments.

In his dissertation, Bradley wrote that situating paleontology in a historically geographic context is vital to “allow paleontology to conscientiously advance into the twenty-first century.”

“A new concept of cultural physical geography would demand a multidisciplinary approach and increase chances for modern paleontologists to be sensitive to issues that are situated in the physical environment in which they seek to conduct their research,” his dissertation reads.

—Staff writer Jasmine Palma can be reached at