On Nov. 8, 2013, the University released an apology letter to Native Nations and other indigenous peoples following its adoption of a new repatriation policy in August 2013.
“Wesleyan University formally apologizes to all Native Nations and indigenous peoples for partaking in the 19th century and 20th century scientific and academic practices of accepting Native American human remains and other cultural items into its institution and collections without the free, prior, and informed consent of Native Nations, indigenous peoples, the individual, or an individual’s family,” the apology reads.
The apology tasks Repatriation Coordinator and Visiting Professor of Anthropology Honor Keeler with overseeing Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) compliance and repatriation; it delegates the issuing of formal decisions and letters related to repatriation to Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Ruth Weissman.
Keeler, who was hired as Repatriation Coordinator last November, explained the University’s history with this matter.
“In the 19th and 20th centuries, Wesleyan University was involved, as other academic institutions and the U.S. government were, in collecting Native American human remains and cultural items,” Keeler said. “At this time this was not illegal, in the sense of U.S. federal law, but it was considered…under traditional native law to be an illegal process. That specific law wasn’t recognized by the U.S. government.”
NAGPRA requires that all federal agencies, museums, and educational institutions receiving federal funds return indigenous human remains, sacred objects, and objects of culture patrimony associated with those from Indian tribes, Alaskan Native villages, and Native Hawaiians. The repatriation policy, released in August, committed the University to NAGPRA compliance; the apology referenced this new policy.
“[The] Repatriation Policy…specifies compliance with [NAPGRA], and also allows for indigenous international repatriation,” the apology reads. “Wesleyan University commits itself to compliance with [NAGPRA] and international repatriation, in recognition of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the 2012 Resolution on International Repatriation passed by the National Congress of the American Indians (‘Support for International Repatriation’).”
Opened in 1871, the University’s Museum of Natural History held an assortment of cultural items from natural history cabinets previously preserved by students, faculty, and alumni.
“The museum here at Wesleyan University began in the 1870s by a fellow who directed it named George Brown Goode,” Keeler said. “It was part of this natural history initiative.”
Following the closing of the museum in 1957, these items were put into storage; Keeler speculated that this was due to a lack of funding and interest. In the 1970s, the collection came out of storage and formed the Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collections. The new policy will lead to repatriation of items in this collection.
President Michael Roth commented on the University’s obligation to repatriation.
“We hired Honor Keeler to figure out what in fact was in Wesleyan’s collections that had been obtained in ways of which we would no longer [approve],” Roth said. “She did find such things, and so we felt that we should apologize for holding those items in our collection and that we should try to return them to their rightful owners.”
The apology letter is just one step in the process; Roth explained that the University’s work is far from done.
“The [next step] is figuring out how best to return these human remains or other objects to the appropriate people,” Roth said. “That’s what led us to make that announcement.”
Keeler expressed her hope that the University will continue actively working on this issue, even with her contract scheduled to end in a year.
“I am hopeful that the University continues moving forward in repatriation efforts to indigenous peoples and in partnership with them,” Keeler said.
Keyonne Session ’17 said that he thinks that the policy and apology letter are indicative of an admirable initiative.
“It shows that we are supporting policies that respect the cultures of different groups who have been taken advantage of in the past,” Session said. “Hopefully with this project, we can help return these artifacts back to their original owners but at the same time learn an extensive amount of information behind the origin and purposes of these artifacts.”
Session noted the desired results of the apology.
“Hopefully this process will help Wesleyan fortify [its] bond with the Native American community,” Session said.
Keeler stated that the process will not necessarily be immediate.
“[I]t’s all dependent upon the tribes and their wishes,” she said. “We may retain collections here until tribes are ready to repatriate. This is an ongoing partnership and consultation with tribes.”
Additional reporting by News Editor Miranda Katz.