A visit to Exley Science Center on Monday, October 10, 2016 may have been business as usual for many Wesleyan students, faculty, and staff. Others may have been sidetracked on their way to class or work in their observation of the various signs, posters, and placards strategically placed throughout the first floor lobby, with a particular concentration outside Pi Cafe. Though a few topics were covered, many of the signs focused on Wesleyan’s compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). NAGPRA is a United States federal law enacted in November 1990 and it mandates, in short, the return of specific types of objects to Native Americans, makes illegal their trafficking across state lines, and regulates the process and procedures for archaeological excavations.
It is no secret that the Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collections house a variety of Native American materials. The collection—initiated in the mid-1800s with the creation and opening of the Wesleyan Museum of Natural History (1871 – 1957)—contains objects that were on trend with 19th century collecting practices throughout the country, including, but not limited to, the collection of indigenous peoples’ cultural, sacred, and ceremonial objects, as well as human remains.
The fact that these materials exist within the Archaeology and Anthropology Collections is not a dilemma unique to Wesleyan, but the mere existence of these types of materials in other collections nationwide does not excuse any institution from addressing this matter in a timely and aggressive manner. Some of the signs located in Exley sought to call attention to a lapse in Wesleyan’s undertaking of complying with the law. Yes, this was absolutely the case for a number of years. But with general compliance achieved in 2014, our efforts are now focused on various other aspects of the process, which will eventually come together to satisfy the law in whole. (It’s important to note here that a repatriation of human remains was successfully completed in summer of 2014 and the human remains still within the collection are actively a part of the consultation process.)
As Archaeological Collections Manager and NAGPRA Coordinator, the question I receive most in regards to the Native American materials within the collection is “why don’t you just return them?” The short answer to that question is “I can’t.” NAGPRA compliance is complex, nuanced, and often a very long process. The key word here is ‘process.’ Compliance requires institutions and federally recognized tribes to communicate, consult, and partner in an effort to make cultural affiliations between objects and remains and their rightful tribe. This open dialogue between the institution and tribe may be time consuming and often convoluted, but it is wholly required within the letter of the law. Finally, the repatriation of materials is ultimately dependent upon the wishes of each federally recognized tribe. It is not unheard of for museums and institutions to retain collections until a tribe is ready for repatriation, with the tribe, not the institution, determining what it deems as ‘ready.’
All of that said, facilitating the repatriation of Native American materials continues to be a priority within the Archaeology and Anthropology Collections. So what’s next in regards to NAGPRA? Day-to-day projects and tasks within the collections seek to supplement and expand upon data associated with each object. This data is used to enhance our inventories of Native American objects and remains. Those inventories are used to review the collections during our consultations with tribes as both parties attempt to make cultural affiliations.
I invite the Wesleyan community to learn even more about NAGPRA on campus and in general by attending the November 4th symposium “The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Revisited: Negotiating Culture, Legalities, and Challenges,” hosted by Center for the Americas. A panel discussion comprised of both institutional NAGPRA coordinators and tribal historic preservation officers will follow an exciting keynote by Suzan Shown Harjo, writer, curator, and policy advocate.