The executive committee of the University faculty’s governing body revisited discussions yesterday about Native American artifacts held in the University’s Museum of Anthropology and the ownership claims to those artifacts made by regional Native American tribes.

Committee member Bob Frost, a professor in the School of Information, said he asked SACUA to discuss the issue because of conversations he had with Native Americans while conducting his own research.

“I often hear from them the question: Why is U of M being so annoying about all of this stuff?” Frost said. “They are, shall we say, less than happy about U of M repatriations.”

The Museum of Anthropology owns about 1,300 Native American artifacts, many of remains. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed in 1990, requires the University to report all artifacts to the U.S. Department of Interior.

Discussions between the University and regional tribes have deadlocked over Native American artifacts currently held by the University that Museum of Anthropology officials have deemed “culturally unidentifiable.” This means that an artifact does not have a “cultural affiliation” — defined by NAGPRA as “a relationship of shared group identity which can be reasonably traced historically or prehistorically between a present day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization and an identifiable earlier group” — with a specific tribe.

In March, members of the Saginaw Chippewa tribe spoke before the University Board of Regents at the board’s monthly meeting. They asked that the University’s culturally unidentifiable artifacts be returned to their tribe because they claimed ownership of them. No action was taken in response to the Saginaw Chippewa tribe’s request.

According to a University Public Affairs website, the University has not repatriated the artifacts to any tribes because NAGPRA requires museums to retain possession of the artifacts until NAGPRA regulations are changed or the Secretary of the Interior recommends the University to act otherwise.

At the SACUA meeting, Frost suggested that the committee ask University lawyers whether the University could repatriate certain artifacts deemed culturally unidentifiable by Museum officials if there was consent from both the University and the tribe involved to do so.

Frost also said the committee should examine repatriation policies at other universities.

“It would be nice to know what practices in peer institutions in parallel museums might be,” he said.

Frost stressed to SACUA members the need to continue discussions on finding an agreeable solution for the both the University and the Native American tribes.

“This is an issue of some major importance to the citizens of the state of Michigan, to Native Americans within the region, to people in the University and I think it’s important that the University faculty
at least be informed on what the state of play is,” he said. “Not necessarily that anything happened, but it would be really good to know what’s going on.”

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