University Takes Steps to Begin Complying with NAGPRA

By Daniel Greenberg, Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Jan Bernstein gave a presentation about NAGPRA and outlined the University’s plans to reassess their practices with respect to the law. YVONNE LIN/CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHER Jan Bernstein gave a presentation about NAGPRA and outlined the University’s plans to reassess their practices with respect to the law.

In the continued debate over the University’s return of Native American remains and cultural objects to their respective tribes, students, professors and faculty gathered on Thursday to learn about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Jan Bernstein, who is a consultant for NAGPRA, gave a presentation discussing the act and the University’s non-compliance with the law.

NAGPRA is a human rights law [that gives] Native Americans rights over their dead ancestors and over cultural materials for ceremonies,” Bernstein said. “These rights are rights that the rest of Americans have.”

Under NAGPRA, enacted in 1990, any Native American human remains or cultural objects in the possession of federal agencies or institutions must be returned to their respective tribes or families upon request. Because the University receives federal funding, it is obligated to comply with NAGPRA.

As part of Section 5 of NAGPRA, institutions are required to prepare an inventory of human remains and other funerary items that they have in their possession. Wesleyan completed an inventory of human remains in 1995 and sent it to the NAGPRA office as well as to the appropriate tribes. However, the University failed to consult with the appropriate tribes before finishing the inventory, rendering it noncompliant.

The University also failed to comply with Section 6 of NAGPRA, which requires institutions to submit summaries of other cultural items in their possession. The University sent summaries of items to eight tribes from Connecticut and Tennessee in 1993. However, there remained several items within the University’s possession that were not correctly recorded.

“I found that Wesleyan had other items from almost every state,” Bernstein said. “So they have many Native American objects that should have been recorded with the appropriate tribe.”

The students and faculty present expressed great interest in ensuring that the University becomes compliant with NAGPRA. Bernstein had previously met with a group of faculty members that included Chief Diversity Officer Sonia Mañjon and Provost Rob Rosenthal. Mañjon expressed her interest in ensuring that Wesleyan becomes compliant with NAGPRA.

“We will have a report by June,” Mañjon said. “We will take this to the cabinet so we can try and get additional resources so as to move forward.”

Many of the students present were members of Students for NAGRPA Compliance and also displayed a great deal of interest in helping raise awareness on campus.

“We want to help keep this process going and educating the student body about these issues,” said Students for NAGRPA Compliance Education and Outreach Coordinator Rachel Cabrera ’11. “We’re going to try and continue having educational events this semester.”

According to Bernstein, it would take at least a year for the University to officially become compliant.

  • Jan Bernstein

    Just to clarify: Wesleyan is in compliance with NAGPRA in that the University submitted a Section Five Culturally Unidentifiable Human Remains Inventory and a Section Six Summary of items that may be sacred, cultural patrimony, or unassociated funerary objects from CT & TN. But at the same time, Wesleyan could be in violation of the Act, in that it did not consult with Indian Tribes prior to submitting the Inventory. So you can be in compliance with the Act and at the same time in violation.

    It is my understanding that the items in the collection that were not previously reported in a Summary were found after the Summary deadline. The procedure for reporting the cultural collections from the other parts of the Nation is in the Future Applicability Rule, which was promulgated on March 21, 2007.

    All of this will be addressed in my report, which can be used by the University as a strategic plan to not only continue to comply with the letter of the law, but with the spirit of the Act. I am looking forward to working with the administration, faculty, staff, and students at Wesleyan University toward the goal of repatriation.