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'U' to return burial remains to tribe

Daily News Editor
Published March 18, 2005

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.