Federal law change will force 'U' to reconsider handling of Native American remains

BY CAITLIN HUSTON
Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 16, 2010

A change in the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act may force the University of Michigan’s Museum of Anthropology — as well as museums across the country — to redistribute their collections of Native American human remains.

The act requires museums to maintain inventories of Native American artifacts, make inventory lists available to the public and work closely with tribes to return artifacts that are associated with specific tribes.

On Monday, a NAGPRA committee approved a change in the act that will force museums — like the University’s Museum of Anthropology — to inform Native American tribes that “culturally unidentifiable” remains found in their tribal regions may potentially be returned to them.

Before the addition to the act, museums were not obligated to return any unidentifiable remains.

Currently, the University’s Museum of Anthropology houses 1,390 “culturally unidentifiable” remains, which have been the subject of controversy in the past.

After much debate on campus about the remains, the University formed the Advisory Committee on Culturally Unidentifiable Human Remains last October to determine how to deal with the Native American culturally unidentifiable remains that are in the museum’s collection.

According to an Oct. 15 Michigan Daily article, the committee was created partially in response to the expectation that NAGPRA would soon be revised and to help the University decide how best to deal with the remains.

LSA sophomore Alys Alley, the co-chair of the Native American Student Association at the University, wrote in an e-mail interview that she and other members of the group believe that the new rule will mean that the culturally unidentifiable remains in the University’s possession will be returned to their respective tribes.

“Many of those remains that are held by the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology are the ancestors of the Native American students on campus, including myself, and I can say confidently that we are looking forward to the return of our ancestor's remains to our communities,” she wrote.

She added that the status of the “culturally unidentifiable” remains in the University’s possession has caused a lot of tension between the University and Native American groups in Michigan.

“This whole situation with the 1,390 Native American human remains in the U of M Museum of Anthropology has caused a lot of pain for the Native American community; we have struggled to see our ancestors return home for many years,” she wrote.

Despite the controversy, University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said the University is aware of the recent change in the act and will comply with its regulations.

“We just became aware of it (Monday), so at this point we’re just digesting what the regulations say,” Cunningham said.

Rackham graduate student Veronica Pasfield, who is also a co-chair of Native Caucus — a graduate student group — and a member of the Bay Mills Tribe, said though she and members of other tribes appreciate the new ruling, they feel that the University has not always acted in compliance with the 1990 law.

“I don’t understand why U of M’s non-compliance with the spirit and letter of this law has been overlooked or tolerated for the last 15 years,” she said.

Though Pasfield said the University has not met the wishes of Native Americans in the past with regards to the remains, she and other members of the Native Caucus were glad to see the formation of the University’s committee in the fall, which she said will help lead a smooth transition to the new regulations.

“I’m so grateful that the repatriation committee has been formed and that the new regulations have been announced while the (University’s) committee is doing their good work,” she said.

Pasfield said she feels the new rule is indicative of the fact that many museums — including the University’s Museum of Anthropology — have had issues complying with the original law.

“The fact that a 15-year tug-of-war about regulations surrounding ‘unidentifiable remains’ has resulted in a stronger call for their return to a peaceful burial to me shows how out of step obstructionist museums are in this law,” she said.

According to a March 15 National Park Service press release, there are more than 124,000 “culturally unidentifiable” Native American human remains in museums and exhibits across the nation. The release stated that 4,000 individual remains have been returned to tribes for burial.

John O’Shea, a curator at the University’s Museum of Anthropology and former member of a NAGPRA review committee, wrote in an e-mail interview that the museum and the University have been abiding by the NAGPRA guidelines in deciding whether or not to return remains.

“I believe the museum does a good job of caring for the human remains in our collections and that we have been forthright and prompt when claims of cultural affiliation have been made by Native groups,” he wrote.

According to the University’s Office of Public Affairs website, the University has returned human remains and other cultural objects to the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and the White Mountain Apache Tribe.

O’Shea wrote he thinks the addition to the act is not aligned with the original intent of NAGPRA because under the new rules, unidentified remains may be returned to tribes that may not necessarily be affiliated with the remains.

“I think it goes well beyond the legislative intent of the act (NAGPRA) in that it requires ancient remains to be transferred to groups that are not culturally affiliated with the remains,” he wrote.

O’Shea added that he believes the change in the act could have negative consequences for museum collections nationwide.

“The new rule could result in the complete removal of all Native remains from all federally-funded museums in the U.S.,” he wrote.

O’Shea wrote that if Native American remains were removed from museums, researchers would only be able to study remains from past populations from Europe, Asia and Africa and wouldn’t be able to make new discoveries about North American populations.

The new regulation will go into effect on May 14, 2010, with a 60-day period for citizens to comment on the rule on the national NAGPRA website.