University administrators and Native American tribes recognized years of cooperative repatriation at a celebration in the League Friday, after signing over human remains from more than 100 museum and research collections to Native American tribes. The official handover occurred at a private ceremony Thursday.
At the celebration, University and representatives of the Native American tribes also thanked Stephen Forrest, the University’s vice president for research, for his work leading the institution out of a contentious chapter in its history of relations with Native American tribes.
The University’s Museum of Anthropology housed 1,390 “culturally unidentifiable” remains in 2010, many of them from Native American groups. The parts of the collection that were signed over Thursday will be reburied near where they were originally taken, in accordance with tribal customs.
In 1990, the federal government passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which aimed to ensure that cultural items and remains used for research purposes were returned to their respective tribes. The law did not specify a procedure for repatriating culturally unidentifiable remains. This gave the University some leeway in keeping those artifacts, leading to disagreements between the University and Native American groups.
Veronica Pasfield, a NAGPRA officer for Bay Mills Indian Community — a reservation in the Upper Peninsula — was a member of the University Native Caucus. The UNC advocated for more oversight and transparency in the repatriation process around 2009.
“We were concerned because we were hearing from tribes that proper consultation had not occurred and that a legally compliant NAGPRA process, a robust process had not occurred and was not occurring,” she said.
The Native American Student Association also expressed support for tribes by moving its yearly Powwow off-campus. The move was in part a protest of the University’s inaction regarding the repatriation of culturally unidentifiable remains. The Powwow returned to campus in 2012.
In 2010 a change in NAGPRA forced museums nationwide to begin moving culturally unidentifiable remains out of their stores as well. The revision mandated that culturally unidentifiable remains be returned to tribes with historical ties to where the remains were originally found.
Anticipating the change in federal law, Psychology Prof. Toni Antonucci, associate vice president for research, said the University established the Advisory Committee on Culturally Unidentifiable Human Remains, which she chairs. The ten-person Advisory Committee was designed to assist Forrest with the process of repatriation.
Forrest said he created the committee to wade through the stipulations of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and establish a procedure for repatriation without creating dueling factions.
“It’s a problem of such scale and such human dimension,” he said. “It’s not a quantitative problem to solve like I do in engineering or physics. It’s like watching rivers flow. There are currents, and it took us a long time to appreciate all of the forces at work.”
Ben Secunda, the University’s NAGPRA project manager, said the change in the University’s attitude came through interpreting NAGPRA as an opportunity to create lasting working relationships with Native American tribes, rather than just a compliance issue.
Antonucci affirmed the importance of working with Native American groups, both professionally and culturally .
“We have made a real effort to work with the tribes, to do so respectfully,” Antonucci said. “Not only in response to the law and not only to the letter of the law, but to be really committed to doing this in a way that recognizes their traditions, their feelings and their emotions.”
However, she added that some researchers are displeased about losing the opportunity to conduct research using Native American human remains and artifacts.
“This is a university, so that means that we are giving back things that will be lost forever to any science, any research,” she said. “And so there are faculty who are losing that opportunity, and so that part is a struggle as well.”
Pasfield said it has “taken a village” to reform the way the University approaches repatriation, but the change is nevertheless noteworthy.
“I have my faith in my University again,” she said. “That it applies the same standards of legal compliance and research ethics to our ancestors as other forms of research.”
Since 2009, the University has hired a number of new personnel, like Secunda, to work on NAGPRA compliance and the repatriation process.
Under NAGPRA, institutions are required to make a record of all cultural remains in their collections. Antonucci said this takes time since sometimes items have been misplaced or mislabeled. Once verified, the record is submitted to a federal registry, which tribes can use to claim remains.
If a tribe lays claim to a remain, the University transfers it in a process that acknowledges cultural traditions and institutional limitations. The Advisory Committee on Culturally Unidentifiable Human Remains created the current procedure after consultations with Native American elders and other experts, Antonucci said.
Every tribe has different reburial ceremonies, but Pasfield said Michigan tribes all try to rebury the remains close to where they were first found.
On Dec. 13, 81 human remains previously held by the University were reburied in a “Recommitment to Earth” ceremony at the Nibokaan Ancestral Cemetery in Isabella County, Mich. Speaking after the ceremony, Shannon Martin, director of the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways museum in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., said repatriation has been learning process for tribes as well.
“The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan has had quite a bit of experience and we have learned this over the years through trial and error,” she said. “These are new ceremonies for our people. Our ancestors never had to rebury, but we have to today.”
Martin said each repatriation brings a sense of reconciliation. Despite the progress made over the last decade, the remains signed over on Thursday and the 81 individuals buried on Dec. 13 represent only a fraction of University collections in the process of repatriation.
“This is just one, one repatriation,” Martin said. “There are many more ahead that we need to do and we need to complete, so as we lay down our ancestors today we’re already thinking about who’s coming next and working for them.”