When students walk into Exley Science Center, they’re usually going to class or heading to the Science Library. Some may descend to the building’s basement, which houses a few classrooms, storage rooms, and a maze of dimly lit hallways. What most students are unaware of, though, is that Exley’s basement is also home to Wesleyan’s collection of Native American remains and funerary objects, a collection that Wesleyan amassed through purchases from indigenous tribes and donations of items stolen by 19th-century missionaries.
Now stored in a blessed, cedar-lined room, these objects had been spread across campus until finally settling in Exley’s basement in the early 2010s. Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), they must now be returned to the descendants of their former owners. But with systemic barriers to repatriation on all sides and the departure of Wesleyan’s NAGPRA coordinator in January, there are now more obstacles to repatriation than ever.
NAGPRA, which was passed in 1990, requires federally funded institutions to create inventories of human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony in their possession and repatriate them to federally recognized tribes at the tribes’ request. The law also provides provisions for repatriating items discovered on federal and tribal lands, and penalties for the trafficking of remains and culturally significant objects. Institutions must create inventories and summaries of all sacred objects in their collections and notify the almost-600 federally recognized tribes of their ability to file for repatriation.
Although NAGPRA was passed in 1990, Wesleyan did little to comply with the Act until the early 2010s, when Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Sonia Manjon recognized the urgent need for Wesleyan to respond to the Act and solicited the help of NAGPRA consultant Jan Bernstein to determine what Wesleyan needed to do.
“I don’t think we were paying too much attention to it,” Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs Joyce Jacobsen said of the Wesleyan’s feeble NAGPRA efforts prior to Manjon’s arrival. “Once the [Wesleyan Museum] closed down in 1957, all the objects scattered…. The archaeology collection was basically the caretaker of these materials.”
In November 2012, Wesleyan hired Honor Keeler, a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and recent law school graduate, as its first NAGPRA coordinator. She began working to execute the compliance plan Bernstein drafted.
The project then came under the supervision of Jacobsen, who was Dean of Social Sciences at the time, after Manjon left Wesleyan. As the first step in its repatriation work, Wesleyan released a repatriation policy in August 2013 affirming its commitment to returning sacred objects and outlining the repatriation process, which requires the NAGPRA coordinator to submit recommendations for repatriation to the provost for approval.
“Our policy basically says that anyone who makes a reasonable claim, we’ll give [objects] back to them,” Jacobsen said.
Before Keeler left Wesleyan in April 2014, she and Jacobsen filed reports with the National Parks Service (which oversees NAGPRA) and all federally recognized tribes detailing the remains and burial objects in Wesleyan’s possession. With this, Wesleyan was recognized by the federal government as being in general compliance with NAGPRA.
Over half of the 30,000 items in Wesleyan’s archaeological collections are indigenous artifacts, but not all artifacts fall under NAGPRA regulations, which only apply to remains and sacred or culturally significant objects. At its height, the collection also housed the skeletal remains of 15 individuals, 10 of which were excavated in Tennessee and repatriated back to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina in August 2014. According to NAGPRA’s online database of culturally unidentifiable remains, Wesleyan’s five remaining sets were all excavated in Connecticut and remain in the University’s possession.
Prior to repatriating the 10 sets of remains, Wesleyan published a notice through the National Park Service in 2012 detailing their findings that these 10 sets had cultural affiliations to federally recognized tribes.
“Archeological evidence, oral tradition, and geographical location supports a cultural affiliation determination to all three Federally recognized Cherokee tribes (Cherokee Nation, Oklahoma; Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina; and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma), which were one group until their forced relocation known as The Trail of Tears, which resulted from the Indian Relocation Act of 1830,” the notice reads.
Following this step to take stock of and publicize the culturally significant objects in its collections and a major repatriation, Wesleyan brought the NAGPRA coordinator’s responsibilities under the purview of the archaeological collections manager and hired Jessie Cohen, who was collections manager of the New Jersey State Museum at the time, to fill these two roles. While at Wesleyan, Cohen was also a visiting instructor of archaeology and drummed up student and faculty interest in the collections. Cohen recently left Wesleyan in January for a similar role at Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural Science, and by the end of her time on campus, 15-20 classes per semester were visiting the collections, up from one or two when she arrived. This interest from faculty and students shows the unique educational opportunities that these collections can provide.
With Cohen’s departure, Wesleyan’s NAGPRA program is left without a dedicated coordinator to respond to repatriation requests and manage the collections. In Cohen’s absence, Jacobsen has temporarily assumed the role of NAGPRA coordinator until Cohen’s replacement is hired. Growing up in Reno, Nevada as the daughter of an anthropological linguist, Jacobsen spent her summers on Native American reservations in the Southwest and Pacific Northwest. When she became provost in 2015, she took the NAGPRA coordinator position under her wing and worked with both Keeler and Cohen to develop the program.
“I like to take things in for a while until they’re under control, and then I transfer them to somebody else,” Jacobsen said, speaking of the expertise she’s gained in stewarding over the collections.
Jacobsen is planning to leave Wesleyan at the end of the academic year to become president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, further necessitating the transfer of information about and interest in Wesleyan’s NAGPRA program to both her and Cohen’s replacements. With the search process for a new provost underway, Jacobsen plans to meet with candidates to explain Wesleyan’s history with NAGPRA and then train her successor in managing the NAGPRA coordinator role. She has also worked on bringing Wesleyan’s archaeological collections under the direct supervision of the library and Caleb T. Winchester University Librarian Andrew White, who joined the University last summer.
“[I] think that the collections as a whole are an incredibly rich resource for current and future students and faculty,” White wrote in an email to The Argus. “Both the objects themselves as well as the history and impact of how and why they were collected have the potential to reveal many things about our past.”
With the archaeological collections manager posting up on Wesleyan’s career page, Wesleyan is also seeking candidates to fill Cohen’s role. The job description specifies the different responsibilities of the NAGPRA coordinator position, one of which is developing and maintaining relationships with tribal representatives.
In Connecticut, there are only two federally recognized tribes: the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe and the Mohegan Tribe. These tribes have the storage and research facilities necessary to preserve fragile artifacts.
Marissa Turnbull, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, which runs the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Mashantucket, Connecticut, pointed out the limitations of NAGPRA as a piece of human rights legislation.
“NAGPRA is human-rights based, and speaks to social injustice and institutionalized racism found within American law,” she wrote in an email to The Argus. “Generally speaking, tribal people are still considered property. This is evident in the language of NAGPRA as it reads similar to property law. NAGPRA was an attempt to extend the protection of the law received by American citizens to tribal nations. It was not until 1990 that we were afforded the basic human right to rest in peace.”
As a federally recognized tribe, the Mashantucket Pequots can use processes established by NAGPRA to claim the remains of their ancestors and other culturally significant artifacts. While NAGPRA also provides for the repatriation of human remains to tribes that are not federally recognized, this process can only occur on a recommendation from the Secretary of the Interior, after the institution in possession of the “culturally unidentifiable” remains has offered them to the federally recognized tribe(s) from whose land the remains originated. This procedure does not apply to culturally unidentifiable sacred objects.
According to NAGPRA’s online database, at least one of the sets of culturally unidentifiable remains in Wesleyan’s possession is “probably Wangunk,” a tribe that lived in the region until about 1765. Because the Wangunks are not organized or federally recognized, tribal ancestors would have to go through this process to claim these remains.
Cohen remarked about the limitations of this distinction between recognized and non-recognized tribes. Because there are more steps involved in repatriating remains back to non-federally recognized tribes and because there is no process in place for repatriating sacred objects, these tribes have a harder time acquiring remains and objects of cultural patrimony from institutions.
“The law was written very conservatively, almost to make NAGPRA difficult to do, benefiting more the museum than the tribe,” she said. “Becoming federally recognized is an extremely lengthy and expensive process.”
Even if NAGPRA did treat recognized and non-recognized tribes equally, most non-recognized tribes would not have the storage facilities required to preserve these objects. This is why places like the Mashantucket’s museum and research center are so important to preserving, showcasing, and storing objects that have been repatriated and highlighting ongoing injustices and repatriation efforts.
“Artifacts provide insight into the tribe’s past,” Turnbull wrote. “When you combine historical research and oral history with physical property…, portions of history are uncovered. It is the duty of the Nation to protect our people. That includes our ancestors…. [W]hen history is written by the colonizer and eradication of tribal memory occurs, artifacts provide a form of physical evidence that may assist the Nation in better understanding past events and individuals.”
According to Turnbull, the Mashantucket Pequots have worked with Wesleyan to identify items in Wesleyan’s collection that can be tied back to the tribe. She also spoke of a request for NAGPRA funding that the University of Connecticut recently submitted with Mashantucket’s support to aid in Wesleyan’s repatriation work. This funding, which comes in the form of federal grants, pays for the background research that goes into repatriation as well as the logistics of meeting with tribal representatives and repatriating artifacts.
“The Mashantucket Pequot Tribe has received NAGPRA grant funding as well,” she wrote. “Through [a] documentation grant, the tribe was able to accurately identify funerary objects and cultural patrimony being held by host institutions, including Connecticut College, Trinity College, Yale University, and Wesleyan University.”
According to the NAGPRA records database, Wesleyan has contacted multiple tribes besides the Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans to alert them of items in Wesleyan’s possession that can be traced back to their ancestors. Besides the two federally recognized Connecticut tribes, Wesleyan has contacted the Cherokee Nation, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma, Poarch Band of Creeks, Muscogee Nation, and United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma. After sending summaries of affiliated items, tribes can reach out to Wesleyan to begin the repatriation process.
After submitting a formal NAGPRA repatriation request, tribes and institutions can anticipate waiting a year—or many more, in some cases—before any objects are actually exchanged. During this period, parties involved have consultations to discuss specifics about different objects and work out logistical matters.
“Consultations can look any number of ways, and it just requires a significant amount of research and a thorough and dynamic open dialogue between the institution and the tribe,” Cohen said. “Transparency is of the utmost importance.”
Since tribes often need storage facilities to preserve remains and objects in their possession, Wesleyan has been unable to repatriate back many of the objects in its collection. According to Cohen, tribes who cannot store fragile objects have reached out to Wesleyan to say that these objects are better off in Wesleyan’s hands. This highlights the conflicted reality of NAGPRA work, that even universities like Wesleyan, which is actively working to comply with NAGPRA, cannot return all items to their rightful owners because of varying tribal recognition and the storage capabilities of tribes. And with a small collection, compared to the collections of larger research universities, Wesleyan can only do so much when the historical injustices against Native American populations have been so great and continue to appear in efforts like ones carried out under NAGPRA.
Professor of American Studies Kehaulani Kauanui, who has dedicated much of her scholarship to tribal communities and indigenous politics, remarked on the inadequacies of NAGPRA in addressing historical injustices. All NAGPRA can offer tribal communities is the ability to reclaim sacred objects, but still, this process can be arduous.
“I don’t think returning something stolen is the same thing as ‘righting a wrong’; to address the deep violence against indigenous communities would take more than repatriation,” Kauanui wrote in an email to The Argus. “Still, Native Nations have the right to rebury the remains of their ancestors and reclaim associated funerary objects, and items of cultural patrimony that should have never left the ground or their communities in the first place.”
Jacobsen feels strongly about passing down the knowledge she has gained during her time supervising Wesleyan’s NAGPRA program to her successor. Unlike representatives from other institutions, for instance, University of California, Berkeley, who have put up red tape in the face of research and repatriation efforts, Jacobsen takes a more restorative approach to the prospect of repatriation and takes the obligations of her role seriously.
“I think we have to be good stewards of the materials and then be willing to return them to tribes when they ask for them,” she said.
Looking ahead to the future of repatriation work at Wesleyan, Jacobsen sees Wesleyan’s efforts in compliance with NAGPRA as part of an ongoing process, one which is unlikely to end anytime soon. All that Wesleyan can do in planning for the future of its NAGPRA work is provide for a thorough transfer of information in this period of transition and continue its commitment to respectful interactions with tribes.
“I think it’s impossible to be done with NAGPRA work because there’s just so many objects,” she said. “I think it’s going to take a long time to finish this project, if it’s ever finished.”
William Halliday can be reached at email@example.com.