It doesn’t take a lengthy history lesson about the treatment of Native American tribes in the United States to realize that their struggle has been wrought with racism and injustice. The effects of this mistreatment still pulsate through communities today. So it goes without saying that tribes hardly need another grievance to add to their already-long list. Unfortunately, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan has one against the University – one that the University needs to make a good-faith effort to correct.
The tribe is claiming rightful ownership of 1,428 human remains and artifacts currently housed at the University’s Museum of Anthropology. The group first sent a letter to the University in November requesting the remains, but the University denied the request. After months of inaction, the tribe reissued its request at the Board of Regents meeting last Thursday. In both face-offs with the University, the Saginaw Chippewa have argued that the three excavation sites where these artifacts were found are located on land attributed to their ancestors. After examining the burial site objects, tribe historians have reiterated that the relics are affiliated with the tribe.
According to the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act passed in 1990, the University must return any “culturally identifiable” remains to Native American tribes. Rather than returning the remains or making a concerted effort to determine their rightful owner, the University has simply maintained that the relics are “unidentifiable.” Therefore, the University cannot by law give them back because doing so would risk that the artifacts go to the wrong owner.
This illogical stance begs the question – what does the University have to gain by denying this request? These remains are not currently being used for research. Many of the artifacts have not been used in the past for research either. Such artifacts, however, are enticing for acquiring renowned researchers. Hoarding these 1,428 remains and tribal items as a way to fish for new faculty is despicable.
By not investigating if this tribe has legitimate claims to these artifacts and possibly returning them, the University is hurting the Saginaw Chippewa and itself. In the past the University has repatriated artifacts to other tribes. Michigan State University also repatriated items in its collection to their appropriate owners in 1996. Facing comparable appeals from tribes, other universities like the University of California at Berkeley, have taken a proactive approach too, creating committees to quickly research such claims. It seems unusual that the University has chosen to take such a lackadaisical approach in this case.
The Saginaw Chippewa Tribe isn’t asking for these remains and relics for no reason. These items have great spiritual and cultural value – it’s not as if these items are worth thousands of dollars. The University needs to do everything it can to decisively conclude whether these remains should be returned. There is no excuse for delay.
Right now, the University’s stonewall approach is only serving to hold this group’s heritage hostage.