Corrections appended: An earlier version of this story quotes University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham as saying that a Native American tribe seeking the return of its ancestral remains would need to provide biological and anthropological evidence linking the remains to the tribe. She did not say that. A corrected quote is below.
An earlier version of this story misidentified Rackham student Veronica Pasfield.
The number of seats roped off during the event 1,390, not 1,428.
Protesters weren’t arguing that all of the remains belonged to the Saginaw-Chippewas as mentioned before. Numerous other tribes were protesting for ancestral remains they claimed belonged to them.
Though the ritual dances and clothing normally garner the most attention at the tradition-rich Ann Arbor Pow Wow each year, this time, it was the protesters.
The event, held Saturday at Crisler Arena, showcased American Indian music, regalia and dance. But the event took on another meaning when protesters at the event sectioned off 1,390 seats at the arena – the number of human remains that protesters claim the University is withholding from the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan and numerous other tribes.
The issue first arose last month when members of the tribe asked the University Board of Regents to return remains they say belong to their ancestors. The University has maintained that the remains are “culturally unidentifiable,” meaning that their true lineage can’t be determined and therefore can’t be returned.
Though the protest played a large role in the event, most of those in attendance seemed to be there for the celebration.
More than 1,000 singers, dancers, musicians and craftspeople from across the nation participated in the event, which organizers say is the largest event of its kind in the Midwest.
Organized by a coalition of student groups, faculty and community members, the Pow Wow is held to “build cohesion between Native Americans, the University of Michigan community and people in southeast Michigan,” according to a written statement released by the planning committee.
“This event is truly a learning experience for people of all ages and backgrounds, because everyone is encouraged to participate, whether by supporting the vendors, dancers and drums, or coming onto the floor to participate in special dances,” said Monita Thompson, the interim director of the University’s office of Multiethnic Student Affairs, in the statement.
During a traditional dance, drum beats reverberated throughout the arena while men stepped in time to the rhythm.
Women wearing regalia, called the jingle dress, performed a healing dance usually reserved for sick or injured members of the community. Performers were judged on their ability to dance, the completeness of their regalia, and their knowledge of the song.
Announcers, speaking over a public address system, welcomed tribes to the floor in both English and native languages. Small stands lined the arena’s corridor, with vendors selling beads, T-shirts and fry bread.
But for some, the issue with the ancestral remains was most pressing. Under federal law, museums receiving federal funding are required to return cultural artifacts, including human remains, to tribal descendants.
In an e-mail interview, University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said the University has complied with the law. She said the University can’t legally turn the remains over to the tribe because no one has been able to prove the “cultural affiliation” of the remains. She said that any finding of “cultural affiliation” or lack thereof is subject to review if new information becomes available.
“The University is unaware of any documents that would demonstrate cultural affiliation for the sites claimed by the Tribe,” she said.
Rackham student Veronica Pasfield, a Bay Mills tribe member, said local tribes shouldn’t bear that responsibility and that the University should set a system in place that allows tribes to collect the remains.
“It’s not our job to do the scientific research,” she said. “The burden is on the institutions to catalogue and provide any information they have about the remains.”
George Martin, one of the Pow Wow’s coordinators and a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe tribe, supported the protest.
“We have lawyers, we have anthropologists and we also have the money,” he said. “We want to get our ancestors back.”
– Megan Davern contributed to this report.