The University has often been heard touting its dedication to minority issues. There is one issue, however, on which the University seems to be dragging its feet. The Saginaw Chippewa tribe has continued to pursue its grievance with the University over the repatriation of cultural artifacts. With the faculty now pushing for a stronger effort to resolve this issue in some way, the University needs to realize the importance of this issue and put it at the top of its agenda.

The Saginaw Chippewa tribe argues that the University possesses 1,428 remains and artifacts found on land belonging to the tribe’s ancestors. Tribal historians have backed the claim that these remains are affiliated with the group, and the group first contacted the University in November with its claim about the remains. The University denied the claim. The tribe then unsuccessfully reissued its demand at a Board of Regents meeting in March.

In both appeals, the University has countered the Saginaw Chippewa’s demand by citing the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. The law requires the University to return all “culturally identifiable” remains to Native American tribes. But the University maintains these artifacts are “culturally unidentifiable,” and returning them would be illegal even if the University wanted to.

Here’s the catch: The University is pursuing the laziest course of action. Since the tribe spoke up at March’s Board of Regents meeting, no effort has been made to re-examine the remains and verify (or firmly refute) the tribe’s claim for rightful ownership of artifacts held by the University.
This is where the executive committee of the University faculty’s governing body, SACUA, has taken issue. The group is now asking the University’s lawyers to consider what other options the University has. For example, can the University return “culturally unidentifiable” artifacts if both the University and the Saginaw Chippewa agree to have them returned?

The point is that the University shouldn’t just sit on its hands. The University has little to gain from holding on to these objects, since many of them have served little research purpose. And considering that the University repatriated remains in 2005 to the Whitefish River band of Canada in a similar case and many other universities, including Michigan State and the University of California at Berkeley, have repatriated artifacts, these conflicts can be resolved.

If the University doesn’t find a way to solve this, though, it has a lot to lose. As it stands, the University’s stance appears insensitive, especially when you consider that the objects in question aren’t merely spearheads and utensils, they also include human remains that the tribe wants to bury. Many members of the Saginaw Chippewa tribe say they’re direct descendants of those whose remains the University is reluctant to return.

In the face of this call for action from within its own ranks, the University should have no alternative but to examine tribal claims and resolve the matter. Continuing an apathetic stance will only antagonize Native American groups and needlessly prolong an issue that continues to stain the University’s image.

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