The University recently appointed Honor Keeler as Repatriation Coordinator to oversee the University’s repatriation effort in accordance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA). Vice President for Institutional Partnerships and Chief Diversity Officer Sonia Mañjon and Chair of the Anthropology Department Douglas Charles sent an email on Nov. 6 welcoming Keeler to the University.
“[Repatriation] has been very personal, I think, for communities because people see their grandmothers, their grandfathers, being displayed,” Keeler said. “And that’s a horrible thing.”
Keeler will teach an anthropology course during the 2013 spring semester as a Visiting Professor of Anthropology in addition to coordinating the repatriation process. Required under NAGPRA for institutions receiving federal funding, repatriation is the process of returning confiscated remains and artifacts to the descendants of the Native-American nations and tribes to which they belong.
“What we’re hoping for is to implement a repatriation policy here within the University that’s progressive and may actually go beyond the requirements of the NAGPRA law,” Keeler said. “I think that the University is taking positive steps to comply with NAGPRA. So I’m hoping for the best.”
The University houses 15 human remains and thousands of artifacts in the archives at the Exley Science Center that require repatriation under NAGPRA. Ten of the 15 human remains are currently being repatriated. Mañjon said that she is not sure how long the repatriation of these remains and artifacts will take, but she suspects that the process will last longer than the two years for which Keeler is currently under contract.
“The initial contract is two years, with renewable options as long as we need that to happen,” Mañjon said. “I don’t know [how long it will take]. She’s done [international repatriation] work before. I think it would definitely be more than two years.”
Keeler noted that the duration of the repatriation process could vary from shorter periods of time to longer periods, depending on the University’s efforts and the tribes involved in the repatriation process.
“It depends both upon the University but also the tribe to which we’re repatriating because sometimes tribes are ready to repatriate within a short period of time or sometimes it takes longer for their own ceremonial preparations or permits that may need to be obtained,” Keeler explained. “So it’s up to the tribes.”
Associate Professor of Anthropology and American Studies J. Kehaulani Kauanui and Professor of Government and Environmental Studies Donald Moon helped to spearhead the repatriation process at the University three years ago by first conducting a symposium and garnering funds from the administration, respectively.
With these funds, the University hired a consultant, Managing Director of Bernstein & Associates NAGPRA Compliance Consultant Jan Bernstein, to guide the repatriation process. The consultant recommended hiring a Repatriation Coordinator, and Mañjon hired Keeler to fill the position.
“The administration has begun talks with all three federally recognized Cherokee Nations, and they will be putting together a plan for the return of the remains,”Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for the Americas Courtney Lewis wrote in an email to The Argus. “Prof. Keeler, a Cherokee Nation citizen like myself, is also now on campus and plans to start her work by [solidifying] a steering committee and developing a permanent repatriation policy for Wesleyan.”
In her report, entitled the NAGPRA Compliance Plan, Bernstein outlines the University’s legal obligation to comply with NAGPRA. In addition, she highlights the benefits of complying, such as forged relationships between institutions and the Native tribes.
“For many museums and Indian tribes, the relationships that have been developed over the last twenty years of working together through the NAGPRA process have expanded beyond the scope of NAGPRA,” it reads. “Long-term relationships between museums and Indian tribes are established during the consultation and repatriation process. These relationships have led to all sorts of collaborations, including lectures, exhibits, educational programs, internships, exchange programs, multi-cultural camps, and other mutually beneficial projects that have led to increased cultural sensitivity.”
Keeler agreed with Bernstein’s view of added benefits from compliance with NAGPRA.
“My belief is that with NAGPRA being passed 20 years ago…NAGPRA issues and repatriation and the histories [of] communities [have] led to some beneficial relationships that developed most particularly in the accurate portrayal of Native events and Native history,” Keeler said.
Mañjon explained that the national NAGPRA office has published and approved the University’s requests. Eventually, the Native representatives will collect the remains and artifacts from the University. Mañjon noted that the tribal representatives have stipulated that the process is sacred and requested that the media not be involved.
“At this point, [the representatives of the Native tribes have] made it very clear that they want no media, that this is a sacred process,” Mañjon said. “And they will dictate who from the University should be present and how they actually want the transfer done. Everything down to how it is to be wrapped and placed. So we’re letting them lead this process.”
Keeler, who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and holds a J.D. and Indian Law Certificate from the University of New Mexico School of Law, will teach her first full-time course, “Tradition and Testimony: Protecting Native American Cultural Resources, Ancestral Remains, and Cultural Objects,” next semester.
“We’re going to be talking about NAGPRA, we’re going to be talking about sacred places and hopefully applying present day issues to the classroom,” she said. “And I would like to have a few field trips. We’re also going to go over Native history so that there’s a basis and background not only of historic U.S.-Native relations, but origin stories and tribal histories around the country.”