Native American remains held in the University’s Museum of Anthropology, which have long been a topic of contention within the University community, were the focus of a workshop yesterday as part of the University’s current theme semester entitled “Meaningful Objects: Museums in the Academy.”
A group of about 30 anthropologists, archeologists and concerned members of the University community gathered to hear Sven Haakanson, Jr., executive director of the Alutiiq Museum in Alaska, speak and answer questions about relationships between museums and Native American tribes. Haakanson also discussed how the issue of repatriation is often handled at other museums.
The discussion was organized by the Ethnography as Activism Workgroup — a group comprised of mostly University graduate students that is part of the Rackham Interdisciplinary Workgroup program and is dedicated to using ethnography to promote activism.
Ethnography as Activism held the event in an effort to continue the dialogue regarding the controversy over the remains.
The University has about 1,400 remains in its possession, which the University claims are culturally unidentifiable. Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the University claims it is obligated to keep the remains until final regulations concerning repatriation are released or the United States Secretary of the Interior instructs the University to release them.
However, several Native American tribes claim the remains belong to them and should therefore be returned.
Haakanson said it shouldn’t matter whether it is possible to identify the remains. He said the Native Americans on Kodiak Island, Alaska — where his museum is located — accept repatriated remains even if their ancestry is unknown.
“Whether they’re Caucasian or not, we’re still going to treat them the same way when they come back with the remains,” Haakanson said. “We’re going to treat them the same way we would treat any of our own ancestors. So, that’s the way we’re always going to treat human remains.”
Additionally, Haakanson said though the two groups may seem at odds, both the museums holding the remains and the Native American tribes that want them back are trying to do the right thing.
“Indigenous groups want to treat the human remains with the most respect by returning them into the ground,” Haakanson said in an interview after the event. “While, on the other side, the anthropologists (and) the researchers want to document and learn from the human remains. So you have a major conflict of world views coming together.”
Haakanson said in order for museums and Native American tribes to coexist, they need to compromise and find agreements that are respectful to all the parties involved.
He cited an example from his own museum. After speaking with an elder from one of the local tribes, the museum staff learned that a bearskin they had on display at the museum was of great cultural significance to that tribe, Haakanson said. The museum had been allowing visitors to touch and play with the skin, but upon learning of its significance, immediately stopped that practice.
Haakanson also said the same elder told the museum staff that the tribe believed that all bear skulls — some of which the museum had in its possession — needed to face north-northwest so that the bears’ spirits could find their way home. The museum complied with the elder’s wishes in order to respect the indigenous group’s rituals.
Those who attended last night’s event expressed frustration that the University and Native American tribes seem to be at an impasse regarding what to do with the remains.
Haakanson said patience was required as, often times, disputes like these take years to be resolved. He added that in order to make any progress the University’s museum administrators and the Native American tribes need to have a meaningful discussion.
“There needs to be some kind of discourse between the tribes and the University so you can come to some kind of resolution so it doesn’t end up in some kind of legal battle,” he said.
Haakanson said the lively discussion was a good way to raise awareness in the community and to keep the issue on the forefront of people’s minds.
“I think it is very helpful to have these discussions because it starts to open the door to a dialogue that, to me, has been shut and stopped,” Haakanson said. “People need to listen to each other and be able to share their sides and find some kind of middle ground so they can resolve something that should be fairly straightforward.”