The University is set to begin a process that will see the transfer of Native American human remains to Indian tribes, University officials announced Friday.
The decision came after a March 15 ruling by the United States Department of the Interior concerning how museums and other agencies — including the University — deal with unidentified Native American human remains, according to a press release distributed on Friday.
Under the terms of the change in the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, unidentifiable remains must be returned to the tribes from whose land the remains were originally excavated, the press release stated. Prior to the change in the law, museums were not required to return remains classified as culturally unidentifiable.
The University currently possesses about 1,390 unidentified remains.
Stephen Forrest, the University’s vice president for research, wrote in the release that the University is currently developing a process for the transfer of the remains.
“The rule change announced last week provides a clear path for the transfer of the human remains in our possession,” Forrest wrote in the release. “We will move down that path in a transparent, swift and respectful manner.”
The University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology currently possesses unidentifiable remains from 37 states, the release said.
John O’Shea, curator of the University’s Museum of Anthropology, said in an interview that the museum is willing to comply with the law, even though it will mean the loss of historical artifacts that are used for research purposes.
“We recognize that it’s taking away irreplaceable evidence, but the law’s the law,” O’Shea said.
Those remains will be distributed to tribes across the 37 states when the ruling takes effect on May 14, according to the press release.
Forrest wrote that the University plans to consult leaders of various tribes as it prepares for the transfer.
“Now that the Department of the Interior has clarified the rule for transferring culturally unidentifiable human remains, it is important that the University reach out to tribal leaders and facilitate the transfer process,” Forrest wrote.
University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said University officials responsible for deciding what to do with the remains have mixed feelings about the new ruling.
In October, the University formed a committee of 10 faculty members and one graduate student to figure out how the University would deal with the remains in light of the expected change in the law.
“There are feelings on both sides,” Fitzgerald said. “I think the frustrating thing for everybody involved is that there was a clear rule to follow from the federal government, and now what’s happening is the Department of the Interior has clarified the rules on what to do with the remains that are culturally unidentified.”
Despite different opinions about the new law, Fitzgerald said Forrest and the committee are “moving ahead quickly” to establish the process of how to transfer the remains before the May 14 deadline.
LSA sophomore Alys Alley, co-chair of the Native American Student Association, wrote in an e-mail interview that she is thrilled that the University is planning to return remains to the Native American communities.
“Many of those remains that are held by the U of M Museum of Anthropology are the ancestors of the Native American students on campus, including myself, and I can say confidently that we are looking forward to the return of our ancestor’s remains to our communities,” Alley wrote.
Alley added that the controversy surrounding the remains in the last few years has caused a lot of distress for members in the Native American community.
“As a Native American student, it has been hard and painful to walk through campus knowing that my ancestors are being kept in the U of M Museum of Anthropology,” Alley wrote. “I hope to see all of the 1,390 remains returned to their homes so that we can finally begin the healing process.”
— Daily News Editor Stephanie Steinberg contributed to this report.