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Administrators and tribe leaders celebrate change in Native American remains policy

Virginia Lozano/Daily
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By Paula Friedrich, Daily Staff Reporter
Published December 20, 2013

University administrators and Native American tribes recognized years of cooperative repatriation at a celebration in the League Friday, after signing over human remains from more than 100 museum and research collections to Native American tribes. The official handover occurred at a private ceremony Thursday.

At the celebration, University and representatives of the Native American tribes also thanked Stephen Forrest, the University's vice president for research, for his work leading the institution out of a contentious chapter in its history of relations with Native American tribes.

The University’s Museum of Anthropology housed 1,390 “culturally unidentifiable” remains in 2010, many of them from Native American groups. The parts of the collection that were signed over Thursday will be reburied near where they were originally taken, in accordance with tribal customs.

In 1990, the federal government passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which aimed to ensure that cultural items and remains used for research purposes were returned to their respective tribes. The law did not specify a procedure for repatriating culturally unidentifiable remains. This gave the University some leeway in keeping those artifacts, leading to disagreements between the University and Native American groups.

Veronica Pasfield, a NAGPRA officer for Bay Mills Indian Community — a reservation in the Upper Peninsula — was a member of the University Native Caucus. The UNC advocated for more oversight and transparency in the repatriation process around 2009.

“We were concerned because we were hearing from tribes that proper consultation had not occurred and that a legally compliant NAGPRA process, a robust process had not occurred and was not occurring,” she said.

The Native American Student Association also expressed support for tribes by moving its yearly Powwow off-campus. The move was in part a protest of the University’s inaction regarding the repatriation of culturally unidentifiable remains. The Powwow returned to campus in 2012.

In 2010 a change in NAGPRA forced museums nationwide to begin moving culturally unidentifiable remains out of their stores as well. The revision mandated that culturally unidentifiable remains be returned to tribes with historical ties to where the remains were originally found.

Anticipating the change in federal law, Psychology Prof. Toni Antonucci, associate vice president for research, said the University established the Advisory Committee on Culturally Unidentifiable Human Remains, which she chairs. The ten-person Advisory Committee was designed to assist Forrest with the process of repatriation.

Forrest said he created the committee to wade through the stipulations of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and establish a procedure for repatriation without creating dueling factions.

“It’s a problem of such scale and such human dimension,” he said. “It’s not a quantitative problem to solve like I do in engineering or physics. It’s like watching rivers flow.