After being noncompliant with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) for the past 15 years, the University is finally beginning the repatriation process for the remains of up to 15 individuals and countless sacred cultural objects currently being stored in its collections at the Exley Science Center. Students passionate about indigenous rights have formed the student group Students for Wesleyan NAGPRA Compliance in order to stay active in the repatriation process and spread awareness about this issue on campus.
“This issue is important because the University is in violation of federal law, and it has a legal and ethical responsibility to complete an inventory of its holdings and take the necessary steps towards their repatriation,” wrote a founding member of the group Emmy Levitas ’11 in an e-mail to The Argus.
The NAGPRA was passed on Nov. 16, 1990—making today its 20th anniversary—and stipulates that all institutions that receive federal funding take part in the process of repatriating indigenous human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony to their respective peoples. The Act states that these institutions had to submit an inventory of objects requiring repatriation by 1995. Because the University failed to submit such an inventory, it has been noncompliant with this law for the past fifteen years.
“Many traditional archaeologists would just say that bones are bones, and that when you’re dead you’re dead,” said Nathan Ratner ’09, a member of the group and liaison to the administration. “But for Native Americans, the bones are tied to the spirit. Every day that the bones are here is a new desecration. It’s not just one long one, it’s every single day.”
Ratner, who is an Anthropology graduate, is writing his master’s thesis on burial desecration in Hawaii.
At a panel discussion on March 26 entitled “Reconsidering Repatriation: Colonial Legacies, Indigenous Politics and Institutional Developments,” Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Professor in the College of Social Studies J. Donald Moon announced that the University would begin the repatriation process by hiring a consultant to look at the investments required for the process and to contact the affected tribes. After the consultant begins this process in late January, the University will publish an inventory of the items and a notice of their intent to repatriate the items.
“The Office of Academic Affairs pledged to hire a consultant to assess financial and time constraints and look at the repatriation process,” said Moon. “Once the consultant is done, we will move forward from there. This has been on our plate for a long time, but it’s now becoming a top priority. And our compliance rate is still much higher than many other similar institutions.”
After the University publishes their intent to repatriate, the final decision will fall upon the tribes.
“Though the University will create an inventory of the items and make the notice of repatriation available, it’s up to the tribes whether they want to claim the items or not,” said Rachel Cabrera ’11, the education and outreach coordinator of the group. “They can either give permission to the University to hold and use the items, they can reclaim them for reburial or for their heritage museums, or they can let the University hold them under certain conditions.”
The Students for Wesleyan NAGPRA Compliance group was created in April following the University’s announcement.
“The student group formed to keep up the momentum towards NAGPRA compliance following the event, to keep the student body informed of and involved in the repatriation process, and to hold the University accountable to federal law and ethical standards for the treatment of human remains and sacred objects,” Levitas wrote.
The faculty support for the project has been a driving force in beginning the repatriation process and supporting the student group.
“At other schools like [University of California] Berkeley, a lot of the Biological Anthropology faculty were not that keen on repatriation,” said student group member Laura Heath ’11. “But at Wesleyan, the anthropology department, the Archaeology interdisciplinary program, and the American Studies interdisciplinary program are unanimously in support of repatriation, which I think is a really important force in everything.”
Associate Professor of Anthropology and American Studies J. Kehaulani Kauanui has been integral in helping students create the NAGPRA Compliance group, and most of the members of the group are currently taking her Native Sovereignty Politics course this semester, which focuses on indigenous rights.
“The Group has the potential to educate our campus community about the origins of NAGPRA, and the importance of complying with this federal law for which Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians fought hard,” wrote Kauanui in an e-mail to the Argus. “Their work can also support the work of the new steering committee recently formed, which is comprised of concerned faculty and select administrators who responded to faculty, student, and community concerns over the fact that Wesleyan is non-compliant with NAGPRA.”
Professor and Chair of the Anthropology Department Doug Charles also provided the group with information and completed a preliminary survey of the items in Exley. He determined that they are connected with tribes in Connecticut, Illinois, and Tennessee.
“Tribes with potential claims were provided inventories and summaries of Wesleyan’s holdings years ago, and to date there have been no requests for repatriation,” wrote Charles in an e-mail to the Argus. “Before any objects can be repatriated, the consultation process with the tribes and other possible descendants must be completed in order to determine the cultural affiliation of the objects and remains.”
Many of the items have likely been in the University’s collection since its founding.
“The materials were either present in extant collections at the time the University was founded or were obtained via donation, purchase, or exchange for the Wesleyan Museum, the natural history museum that was housed in Judd Hall from 1871 to 1957,” Collections Manager Juliana Shortell wrote in an e-mail to the Argus. “Most of the material we reported to tribes and to the federal government has been at Wesleyan for around 100-140 years.”
Repatriation can be a costly and lengthy process, often lasting three to six years.
“NAGPRA compliance can be a very complicated, time-consuming, and expensive process, involving documentation of subject collections and consultation with tribes and/or other descendants,” Charles wrote. “This can include, for example, site visits by tribal representatives. Most costs are borne by the institution, although grant funding through the National Park Service, which administers NAGPRA, is available.”
Though this process can often be controversial at other universities, Cabrera is optimistic about the Wesleyan’s commitment to the process.
“This issue is very contentious at many schools,” she said. “There can be huge protests and the administration really has to have their arm twisted before they agree to anything. So it’s encouraging to see that Wesleyan is voluntarily agreeing and committing itself to beginning this process of repatriation.”
The student group hopes to participate in the repatriation process by consulting with the administration and faculty and by staying involved in meetings and dialogues about the project. They also plan on holding lectures, film screenings, and discussions to raise awareness about indigenous rights. They are confident that the University will continue with the process, but they will not hesitate to split with the administration if they decide to halt the project because of financial constraints.
“The biggest obstacles have not been crossed yet,” Cabrera said. “The administrations said they would support repatriation, but it requires a significant commitment of resources, and they haven’t gotten to the point where they’ve signed the dotted line. We’re maintaining our distance until that commitment has been made, but so far, so good.”
The group believes that once more students are informed of the human remains and cultural objects in Exley in violation of NAGPRA, they will be as outraged that it has taken so long to begin repatriation.
“Indigenous people have an expansive history of genocide and assimilation,” Ratner said. “They’ve had everything taken from them, and now we’re taking their dead and ancestors from them too. These are issues that should be important to everyone at Wesleyan, and the more these issues are discussed, the more they’ll be able to be addressed.”