The first encounter that many students might have had with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was on Oct. 10, when activists installed posters detailing the University’s cooperation with the act. NAGPRA essentially mandates the return of specific types of cultural objects to Native Americans, makes illegal their trafficking across state lines, and regulates the process and procedures for archaeological excavations.

The protesters’ posters pointed out that in 2013, University administrators responded to students’ and faculty members’ complaints that the human remains and other native artifacts were being held as remnants of the natural history museum.

“Upon further inspection, it [was] revealed that the archeology and anthropology collection [was] not compliant with two sections of NAGPRA law,” the poster read.

The poster also states that in 2016, “Exley still holds native human remains and thousands of cultural objects.”

Jessie Cohen, Archaeological Collections Manager and NAGPRA Coordinator who began working at the University in 2014, clarified concerns raised by the posters in an Oct. 31 Letter to the Editor in The Argus.

“It is no secret that the Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collections house a variety of Native American materials,” Cohen wrote. “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.”

Cohen also pointed out that simply returning these items is not as legally feasible as many might hope.

“[T]he question I receive most in regards to the Native American materials within the collection is ‘why don’t you just return them?’” Cohen wrote. “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.”

On Friday, Nov. 4, the Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collections and the Center for the Americas co-sponsored an event that shed more light on the history and complexity of NAGPRA. Called “The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Revisited: Negotiating Culture, Legalities, and Challenges,” the event included a keynote address by Suzan Shown Harjo of the Cheyenne and Muscogee tribes and a panel moderated by Cohen; Barker Farris, Repatriation Coordinator and Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, University of Massachusetts, Amherst (UMass); Elaine Thomas, Deputy Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, The Mohegan Tribe; and Marissa Turnbull, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation.

Harjo is a writer, curator, and policy advocate who, among many other accomplishments, was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014 and secured the passage of key laws.

Harjo began her address titled “Living Within the Law/Keeping Faith With the Ancestors: 23 Years Making NAGPRA and 26 Years Abiding by Reparation Law” with an explanation of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, which made it illegal for non-Native Americans to sell Native American crafts.

Harjo then took a step back, explaining many of the laws passed in the 19th and 20th centuries that dealt with the regulations of Native Americans’ cultural practices. In 1880, Harjo explained, the Secretary of the Interior republished regulations about what Native Americans could and could not do legally, called the Civilization Regulations; some of the practices outlawed included growing long hair, painting, and dancing. Focusing first on the Sun Dance, these officials later broadened definitions of cultural dance, eventually outlawing all forms of this expression.

“A whole lot of people were killed for dancing,” Harjo said. “That’s how Sitting Bull was killed….The Army wanted to make sure all the dances were gone.”

The greed of white politicians, Harjo explained, extended far beyond their desire to stamp out Native American cultural practices. Officials essentially stole any items they could get their hands on.

“Politicians wanted gold, silver, cattle ranching potential, railroads,” she said. “Whatever native people had, there was a constituency of white people who wanted it.”

Harjo reflected on the cruelty of the time.

“How do you stop the thievery?” Harjo asked. “How do you stop further degradation? How do you stop civil regulations that outlawed everything that made us people?”

Once those civilization regulations were gone, and seizing Native Americans’ possessions was no longer a governmental project, Indian Bureau officials threw away or burned their books. As a result, few records exist of what was taken and from whom.

Harjo urged the audience to be suspect of Native American cultural items on display in museums or universities that say, “Gift of such-and-such tribe.”

“It’s most likely an army officer just scooped it up,” she said. “That’s why native people have so little, and museums have so much.”

With knowledge of this history, in the late 1960s Harjo and a group of indigenous activists, religious leaders, and practitioners became involved in the planning of repatriation law and the development of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Strategically located in the National Mall, the museum has been an integral site of repatriation.

“We wanted the politicians who were making laws about us to look us in the face,” Harjo said by way of explaining the museum’s location, which is visible to Congresspeople.

Harjo and her group also helped pass the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, which provided the foundation for future repatriation legislation, such as the NAGPRA of 1990.  

Moving to the present day, Harjo touched on the current struggle over Standing Rock, where a direct-access pipeline poses a threat to Native American land and water.

“[The pipeline] is combustible, slow-moving sludge that they speed up the movement of with the addition of toxic chemicals,” she explained. “Thank goodness for President Obama….Now they’re considering options for rerouting.”

After Harjo’s keynote address, panelists Cohen, Thomas, Farris, and Turnbull joined Harjo for a discussion, which later opened to a Q&A with the audience. Current chair of the American Studies department and Professor of Anthropology J. Kēhaulani Kauanui introduced the panel, contextualizing the conversation by chronicling her own struggles with the University administration in advocating for the hiring a NAGPRA coordinator, demanding University compliance with NAGPRA, and hosting events associated with the legislation surrounding indigenous rights activism. Upon receiving tenure in 2007, Kauanui began to push on NAGPRA compliance, citing the storage of human remains in Exley Science Center as a violation of the legislation, and also a catalyst for her role in the process.

“So much [of the progress made in getting the University closer to NAGPRA compliance] came through in a unified action of colleagues in three units: American Studies, Anthropology, as well as all of the people in the Archaeology Program,” Kauanui said of her efforts that began in 2007. “All three units unanimously came together to demonstrate support for [University] NAGPRA compliance. We also were able to negotiate for a meeting with two deans.”

According to Kauanui, despite the threat of losing federal funding applicable to all universities that fail to reach the standards of NAGPRA compliance, and due to the leniency of NAGPRA enforcement under the George W. Bush administration, Wesleyan and other universities were not inclined to begin the process of NAGPRA compliance until more recently. Kauanui helped facilitate a panel in 2010 on NAGPRA policy, which was attended and hosted by tribal elders, senior archeologists, and community members (and which highlighted Wesleyan’s own disregard for the federal policy at the time). Kauanui and her colleagues pushed the administration to hire a consultant who would begin the process of sorting through and assessing the University’s collection. With the hiring of consultant Jan Berenstain in 2010, Kauanui and an ad hoc team of University scholars and administrators from Davison Art Center, the Religion Department, and the Archaeology Department among others convened to push for NAGPRA compliance.

“Those inventories should have been completed under federal law by 1995,” Kauanui said. “That takes labor. That takes employment. That takes a lot of time….As I said to some students yesterday in one of my classes, my line of the time was: the road to recovery is to admit you have a problem.”  

The promise of a more indigenous rights-conscious Obama administration paired with pressure from Kauanui and her team successfully pressed the Roth administration to finally begin the process of becoming NAGPRA-compliant. The University later hired Honor Keeler in 2012 for a two-year contract, during which she began the process of repatriating the human remains in Exley Science Center and many other artifacts. Kauanui offered her praises of a student activist group on campus at the time that worked alongside the three units mentioned above and helped to pave the way for eventual University compliance in 2013.

Jessie Cohen was eventually vetted by the team and hired by the University in 2014 as the NAGPRA Coordinator. Cohen spoke on the panel, stressing the concerns of students as valid due to what she deemed as a lack of transparency by the University administration.

“Transparency is a necessary part of fulfilling NAGPRA,” she said. “It is not only necessary that I am transparent with native tribes; it is also essential that I am transparent with the stakeholders, you within the greater Wesleyan community.”

Cohen focused her portion of the panel on distinguishing the difference between the words and spirit of NAGPRA. 

“The spirit of NAGPRA might lead people to believe that there are easier, more efficient, and maybe even fairer ways for NAGPRA to take place,” she said. “The letter of the law says that I cannot automatically [repatriate to a non-federally recognized tribe], but the spirit of the law will allow me to repatriate to a non-federally recognized tribe as long as any federally recognized tribe with an interest in those particular objects has signed off on the repatriation. It’s a circumstance still frustrating without a doubt, but all parties are tasked with making a good faith effort that satisfies both the letter and the spirit of NAGPRA.”

She closed by attempting to be transparent in another way by offering statistics on the University’s collection.

“There are approximately 30,000 objects in total within the collections and that estimation is rough and low considering that there are several archeological collections that are not native in origin and that have not yet been factored into that total,” she said. “Approximately 60 percent of currently inventoried objects represents material that is known or highly suspected to be of native origin…. In terms of ancestor remains records and similarly related contexts have been scarce. According to inventory submitted to the national NAGPRA office, the remains of 15 individuals were reported of being of Native American and or archaeological origin. Through the work of NAGPRA, 10 of those individuals were culturally affiliated….Those 10 individuals were repatriated in 2014 and the remaining individuals continue to be a part of the consultation process.”

The panel then transitioned to Repatriation Officer Farris at UMass Amherst, who discussed the origins of the process between his university and local tribal communities in the Connecticut River Valley (CRV), which began over two decades ago prior to the passing of NAGPRA legislation. He also stressed his weariness over commonplace terminology used when referring to human remains in archaeological collections.

“I hesitate in using this word,” he cautioned. “I really don’t like to use the word ‘collection.’ I would rather use the word ‘ancestor.’”

He detailed a lengthy struggle to repatriate funerary objects and ancestors to a local, non-federally recognized tribe in the Amherst area. After his predecessor successfully facilitated cooperation between federally and non-federally recognized tribes over this attempted transfer, Farris was hired in 2010. The physical reburial, though legally secured in 2014, was physically completed just a few months ago.

“I’m happy to say that in September we reburied the ancestors…at the location that the [federally recognized tribes] agreed upon in conjunction with the non-federally recognized tribes,” he said. “Everybody came together and made it happen. Now we’re talking about almost 100 individuals. It was a big repatriation. Ninety-four ancestors and 4,193 [funerary objects].”

Farris went on to discuss the issues he now faces in continuing the repatriation process to close his speech, and which he also discussed later in an interview with The Argus.

“We should have the Anthropology Department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in compliance [with NAGPRA] by the end of the year,” he said.

“There have not been any efforts as far as I know to reach out to any other departments on campus to see if there are NAGPRA-sensitive collections anywhere else in the UMass Amherst system,” he added in an interview with The Argus.

The panel then shifted to representatives from the indigenous perspective of the NAGPRA process.

Elaine Thomas, Deputy Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Mohegan Tribe, spoke about her work representing her tribe.

“In 1957 the construction of I-95…desecrated an estimated 50 to 60 burials,” she said. “Workers were told to go back to work and keep quiet or leave the job and find work elsewhere.”

A worker took the human remains of a woman and several funerary objects from one of these sites and later delivered them to the Peabody Museum at Yale University; however, the construction man kept several of the funerary objects he found.

“He kept them for over 40 years before his conscious would not allow him to keep the objects any longer,” Thomas said. “For all purposes this could have been an isolated find. The tribe repatriated their ancestral remains without any known ancestral objects….By the man’s efforts to ease his conscience by coming forward and giving an account of what had happened, and by his own admission to do the right thing, the tribe was able to give closure and dignity to the reburial of our ancestor as deemed appropriate by the tribal elders.”

Thomas continued to stress that while this was an act of goodwill, the unnamed man’s guilt was the only motivation for the delivery of the stolen funerary objects; he operated under no legal binding in returning them. Thomas closed by offering a moral plea for institutions to repatriate their collections and ancestors.

“We know of cases where institutions were actively reluctant to comply with NAGPRA in returning human remains to the [Mohegan] ancestral homeland even after decades of NAGPRA law being in place,” Thomas said. “It is really a shame that not all respected institutions in today’s society can find it in their conscience to not only obey NAGPRA law…but so much more than that, realize and concur that there is a moral obligation sometimes to just doing the right thing.”

Marissa Turnbull, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, spent her portion of the panel discussing her interactions with the legislation and her limitations.

“There are many institutions that hold our human remains, associated funerary objects,” she said. “[Repatriation] can take a long period of time and not because [institutions] don’t want to repatriate them or because we don’t want them returned, [but because we are limited in] the actual process of going through the steps and also not having the hands or the resources that you need to be able to do the work.”

Turnbull spoke of the importance of panels like this one in awareness-raising efforts.

“That’s why I’m very appreciative of this panel, anytime that like-minded individuals can get together to share information,” Turnbull said. “I find in this position when you’re dealing with what we deal with sometimes I’m stuck with a lot of unanswered questions….There are a lot of challenges and though NAGPRA is established and the process of repatriation is happening, there are still a lot of gray areas that need to be worked on in order for us to get to the place that we need to be; however, it’s not on the institutions or the other side, I think that it’s going to take a lot of work and resources.”

After the panel, Kauanui offered her thoughts on the semester and indigenous rights activist efforts in an email exchange with The Argus.

“In terms of education and mobilization on campus regarding indigenous struggles, this has been an exciting semester with the #NoDAPL teach-in, the campus lecture by Chief Arvol Looking Horse, and the NAGPRA revisited event,” Kauanui wrote.

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