The University Board of the Regents approved yesterday the repatriation of the Canadian burial remains of the Whitefish River band, an indigenous people from the Ojibwe Great Lakes tribe that has not seen the remains for more than 60 years. The approval marks the University’s first international burial remains repatriation.
Originating from Old Birch Island cemetery in Lake Huron, the 16 to 18 human remains, which also include cultural artifacts, were excavated in 1938 by University anthropology Prof. Emerson Greenman and later preserved by the Museum of Anthropology.
By 1983, the Whitefish River people began talks with the University to reclaim the burial remains. After more than two decades, last month, both sides finally reached an agreement to repatriate, which only required final approval from the regents to go through.
“It’s been a long, arduous journey,” said Esther Osche, a Whitefish River member who spoke on behalf of the band. “By putting them home, we fix something that was done wrong to us.”
Gary Krenz, special counsel to University President Mary Sue Coleman, said yesterday’s repatriation was a culmination of decades of work to reach an agreement that satisfied both sides.
“I think there was sincere efforts on both sides,” he said. “I’m just happy we got a mutual agreement.”
With the passage of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990, public museums like the University’s are forced to return cultural items such as human remains to native peoples who wish to reclaim them. But the law does not extend to cultural items originating from territory outside of the United States, nor does the law apply to Canadian tribes.
John O’Shea, curator of the Anthropology Museum, said although NAGPRA has no jurisdiction over Canadian burial remains, the University still wished to follow in the spirit of the law.
“What the University became concerned about was the deep sincerity expressed by the band,” said O’Shea, who is delegated by the regents with the authority to determine the validity of repatriation claims. “It did constitute a special case.” Other museums across the country have also conducted international repatriations such as The Field Museum based in Chicago, which returned 150 burial remains of the Haida people who reside in British Columbia.
No date has yet been set for the formal return of the remains, Osche said, but the band will set a timetable soon.
Members of the Native American community on campus and faculty members of the Native American studies department were asked by the band to not speak to the public on the issue.
Moving On from the Past
The elders of the Whitefish River band made a promise the day the community addressed the absence of the remains on Old Birch Island, Osche said.
“They promised our community would flourish when this was done. That we would regain our sense of pride and dignity,” she said.
With the approval for repatriation, Osche said her community has now reclaimed that prestige. But it came with decades-worth of work with the University to achieve.
And although the repatriation process has been settled, both sides still differ in their interpretations of the history behind the burial remains and the process leading up to yesterday’s repatriation.
Part of the dispute was both sides’ differing interpretation of Greenman’s original excavation of the remains. Osche said Greenman exhumed the remains without the consent of the band members, who had initially aided the anthropologist in touring the area and may have revealed the burial site to him.
“Their innocence, their naïve-ness were exploited by Mr. Greenman,” she said.
Once the remains were sent to the University, Osche said, it was unrealistic for the band to seek repatriation at the time. She said the economic depression and the beginning of World War II, along with the inept Indian Affairs office of Canada, made repatriation impossible. Moreover, the band had no clear idea of where the remains were displaced to.
“I imagined they must have gave up hope about these remains, or they were powerless to do anything,” she said.
But the excavation was approved by band members at the time, O’Shea said, adding that band members showed Greenman the burial site and assisted him in digging up the remains.
“In 1938, nobody up there considered this (burial site) a cemetery,” he said.
Not until 1983, after Osche discovered a 1950 report by Greenman indicating that the burial remains were at the University, did the Whitefish River people begin their effort to reclaim the burial remains from the University. The report documented in detail trade routes in the vicinity of Whitefish River land, which led her to conclude that the remains might have been transferred to the University.
Arriving at the University soon after, Osche said she met O’Shea, who confirmed that the Anthropology Museum possessed the remains from Old Birch Island. O’Shea even substantiated the claim by giving Osche a more conclusive Greenman report.
“He gave me Dr. Greenman’s report, and he said to me, ‘Dr. Greenman states in his report that the ancestors he found on Old Birch Island were more than likely the ancestors of the people of present day Old Birch Island,” she said.
“I was very impressed; I thought he was helping us,” Osche added.
But retrieving the remains was another matter, as even with the passage of NAGPRA, there were no legal means for the band to repatriate the remains.
“We knew we were up against great odds,” she said. “We knew that there wasn’t a good chance we were going to get them. But we asked anyway.”
After years of various failed attempts to have their claims recognized by the museum, formal talks with the University finally began in 1997. But they ended abruptly when, on April 22, then-University President Lee Bollinger sent a letter to the Whitefish River band denying that the band had a cultural affiliation to the tribe — despite the evidence in the Greenman report. It was tough for the tribe to swallow, Osche said.
“They felt they had a responsibility to protect their collection,” Osche said. “We understood the University point of view — they were very clear in communicating their point of view — but they weren’t clear with our point of view.”
O’Shea, however, said there was not enough evidence from the Whitefish River band to support the claim that the remains belonged to current residents of Old Birch Island. “Based on the physical evidence, you cannot necessarily affiliate these remains to the Whitefish River people,” he said. Moreover, Krenz said the University also needed to consider the academic loss of relinquishing remains that have scientific value.
“The University has this ethical obligation to preserve artifacts of the past. And it is trying to balance that with the cultural complex,” he said.
Although O’Shea said he is still not convinced that the burial remains are the ancestors of the Whitefish River band, the University recognized in 2003 the custodial responsibility the band had over the remains. Since the remains lied in the territory of the Whitefish River peoples, O’Shea said the University decided it was legitimate to repatriate the remains on that pretense. But it was necessary for other Canadian tribes in the Great Lakes region to approve the repatriation as well in order to ensure that the burial remains did not belong to another people.
After gaining the approval of other Canadian tribes, Osche said, the Whitefish River band was then able to finally go forth with repatriation.
Despite the sometimes difficult dealings with the University, Osche said with the approval from the regents and O’Shea, the University have clearly shown that it respects the claims of the Whitefish River band.
“They do understand, they have finally come to understand, that the first nation will not go away, the first nation has a great responsibility,” she said. “And I think somehow they began to see this and how to help us.”
While this is the University’s first international burial remains repatriation, it may not be the last. O’Shea said the University’s museums may still have the human remains of other Canadian tribes, but it is yet to be seen whether a tribe or tribes will wish to reclaim them.