The University announced yesterday that it has finalized its decision to return its collection of Native American human remains and funerary objects, 15 years after formal dialogue between the University and Native American tribes began.
In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, which required all museums possessing Native American remains or funerary objects to catalog and return them to the tribes that were culturally affiliated with them. As a result, some of the University collection was returned.
Despite this requirement, the University has remained in possession of 1,600 remains and 16,000 funerary objects that were culturally unidentifiable, according to a University press release issued yesterday.
However, a federal court ruling on May 15, 2010 mandated that the University return the culturally unidentifiable remains and funerary objects to tribes native to the area where the remains were found.
Stephen Forrest, the University’s vice president for research, said the effort to develop the policy behind returning the remains has been a community effort.
“You can’t do this alone,” Forrest said. “It (has been) a large community effort to make this thing come together,” he said.
Forrest added that the participation of the Native American community has been integral in developing a policy on NAGPRA.
The 74-page policy, published on the University’s research website, details the steps claimants must take to claim remains and funerary objects found on their native land. Forrest said there have been claims placed on all objects in the University collection.
The current members of the Native American Student Association worked to increase communication with the University while the decisions about the remains were being made.
“We are very happy to see (the Committee on Culturally Unidentifiable Human Remains’) recent progress in changing University of Michigan Museum practices during this process and hope to see further committed efforts,” Public Policy junior Forrest Cox, NASA external co-chair, said in a statement yesterday.
In the past NASA protested against the University and was vocal about its concerns regarding the handling of the remains. Recently, NASA has refrained from protesting because it felt the decision about the remains was beyond student influence.
A specialist is currently monitoring the remains in a protected space until the claims are filed, Forrest said, adding he is glad the policy has been finalized.
“I’m very relieved to have a clear, articulated policy that provides a very clear and — I think — community-sensitive path to returning the various human remains and associated funerary objects,” he said.
Forrest said he believes the policy will be beneficial to University research associated with Native Americans, and to the further development of related research.
“We have a better understanding and, I hope, relationship with the Native American community now.”