Over the course of the last two decades, University officials, students and Native American organizations have been locked in a controversial debate over museum artifacts deemed “culturally unidentifiable.” But this week, the debate over these artifacts at the University’s Museum of Anthropology may finally advancing after years of gridlock. Recent changes to the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act will force museums, including those at the University, to re-evaluate “culturally unidentifiable” remains and return them to the Native American community. The University should act in a timely manner and return the 1,390 “culturally unidentifiable” remains it currently possesses to the appropriate Native American groups.
As reported by the Daily yesterday, a committee representing NAGPRA approved an alteration to the initial 1990 legislation on Monday. Under NAGPRA, museums are obligated to keep public record of Native American artifacts in their possession. The changes approved on Monday would require museums to inform nearby tribes of where “culturally unidentifiable” remains were unearthed. Based on that information, Native American tribes may request the return of the artifacts. The change will take effect on May 14 and will be followed by a 60-day comment period. Under the new rules, the University’s Museum of Anthropology will be required to re-examine the 1,390 artifacts in its collection.
The University has refused to take action to return “culturally unidentifiable” remains to Native American groups for years. Since NAGPRA’s inception in 1990, the University has been repeatedly asked to re-examine its Native American remains by tribes hoping to find remains of members of their groups. And though the University returned a fraction of its human remains, along with other artifacts, to Native American tribes in 2005, the University has still failed to act upon other “unidentifiable” artifacts. But this cultural insensitivity is unacceptable. The University should take more aggressive action to identify and return the artifacts.
While the University may feel the possession of these remains is important for research and educational initiatives, it can’t simply ignore the request of Native American groups to regain ownership of their history. Native American groups at the University have been fighting for decades for the proper return of these artifacts, and the University has unacceptably taken excessive efforts to avoid fulfilling its legal obligation to do so. The University has an ethical responsibility to stop dragging its feet and return the property that rightfully belongs to Native American tribes.
The battle between the University and Native American groups has been long and contentious. But with the passing of new NAGPRA regulations, the University now has no excuse for its inaction. It must make more efforts to return the artifacts. And now the University has an opportunity to put the controversy behind them and return the artifacts without undue delay.
Making sure that these artifacts are returned in a timely fashion won’t make up for the delay, but it will help establish a beneficial relationship between the University and Native American groups. This would herald an important step towards the reconciliation between the two parties while still allowing the University to continue its research — without hoarding anyone’s heritage.