The University’s leading faculty governing body met yesterday to discuss, among other things, the University’s ongoing efforts to repatriate culturally unidentifiable human remains for which groups of Native Americans have laid claims.
Speaking before the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, Vice President for Research Stephen Forrest and Toni Antonucci, an associate vice president for research and chair of the University’s Culturally Unidentifiable Human Remains Committee, described the University’s current efforts to implement a plan to repatriate culturally unidentifiable human remains and associated funeral-related objects in the University’s possession.
The two outlined recommendations put forward by the CUHR Committee and discussed recent changes to the University’s legal obligations, which came as the result of a court decision in March over provisions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, and the progress University officials have made in adjusting to the new regulations.
The change requires institutions like the University to alert Native American tribes that there is a possibility that “culturally identifiable” remains found in the same region as the tribe may be repatriated to the tribe.
In its report, released publicly on Sept. 24, the CUHR Committee recommended that University officials take nine steps to move forward with its repatriation work.
Among those recommendations, the committee said the University should hire two dedicated employees, one to deal with requests from Native American groups for possession of the culturally unidentifiable human remains, and the other to work with University museum officials to better inventory the remains currently held at the University.
Antonucci told members of SACUA that both recommendations had been implemented, saying both staff members had already been hired.
The CUHR Committee also encouraged University officials to renovate and establish a dedicated space in the Museum of Anthropology to accommodate appropriate storage of Native American funerary objects and human remains, as well as add space for meetings with representatives of various Native American tribes.
According to the report, a search for such space and consideration of the necessary renovations is currently underway.
Report recommendations also urged University officials to make the University’s existing NAGPRA Committee a permanent, standing committee within the Office of the Vice President for Research and to apply for any available federal grants to offset expenses that may result from repatriation.
The CUHR Committee also recommended that the University implement policies, similar to those now legally required for culturally unidentifiable human remains, for repatriating associated funerary objects.
The University currently holds approximately 1,600 remains and funerary objects that fall under the current guidelines, Forrest and Antonucci told members of SACUA. However, they both stressed that it is very difficult to amass with 100-percent accuracy a full inventory of all such items at the University.
Antonucci explained that inventoried remains may be difficult to classify in some cases. Outside observers might presume that collections of bone fragments found together might all be human if some were tested and found to be human, Antonucci said. However, each bone fragment must be tested to determine its individual biological origin, she said.
Additionally, the committee recommended that a website be established to keep the community informed of repatriation developments at the University — something that has already been done — and that a formalized process for handling claims be established internally.
Antonucci told members of SACUA that the website, in addition to serving a forum for increased dialogue and internal documentation, is meant to provide more transparency to a process that has historically been very contentious for both members of the University community and Native American tribes.
Members of the CUHR Committee also suggested that University officials send out formal letters to members of the Native American community who wish to make a claim to some of the remains and associated objects to encourage an open dialogue.
Asked about the current use of the University’s collection, Forrest and Antonucci told members of SACUA that some research, though limited, is still being done on some of the objects that may ultimately be repatriated.
Two University-affiliated researchers are using part of the University’s collection in their current research projects. The first is a professor who is performing fieldwork with Native American tribes in Arizona, while the other is a graduate student on campus who is using ceramics as part of her research.
During yesterday’s meeting, Forrest acknowledged that the University has had a troubled history with many Native American groups, but said he is looking forward to putting that behind him and working to improve future relationships.
“The past is the past,” Forrest said. “We’re just trying to move forward.”
The Office of the Vice President for Research is currently seeking input from the broader University and Native American communities through the end of the month about the recommendations of the CUHR Committee and the University’s broader repatriation efforts.
— Austin Wordell contributed to this report.