U-M committee will advise about the transfer of culturally unidentifiable human remains

October 15, 2009
  • umichnews@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—University of Michigan Vice President for Research Stephen Forrest has announced formation of a new advisory committee on culturally unidentifiable human remains (CUHR).

The group will advise Forrest on issues related to requests U-M receives from Native American tribes for the transfer of CUHR and funerary objects from the Museum of Anthropology. He made the announcement at the Board of Regents meeting in Flint today.

“I appreciate the willingness of these distinguished individuals, who represent a variety of academic backgrounds, to bring their broad experience and scholarly perspectives to this sensitive and complex issue,” Forrest said.

The group is called the Advisory Committee on Culturally Unidentifiable Human Remains under NAGPRA. NAGPRA—the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act—provides a mandatory process for returning culturally affiliated human remains and associated funerary objects to individuals and groups that have standing under the law and have requested such return.

By contrast, museums are to retain possession of CUHR until final regulations are promulgated or the U.S. Secretary of the Interior explicitly approves a recommendation otherwise.

U-M and other universities and museums have been anticipating changes in NAGPRA rules that would establish disposition policy and procedures, including an order of precedence for claims for CUHR. However, it is not clear when the new rules will be announced or when they will go into effect.

Debates regarding how to balance Native Americans’ concerns about CUHR and associated funerary objects being held by museums and the knowledge that can be derived from researching such collections have been contentious, both nationally and at the U-M.

Forrest said his goal is that U-M “do the right thing, be proactive and be prepared for anticipated changes in federal rules regarding disposition.”

Currently, when remains can be identified with a present-day federally recognized tribe, U-M contacts the tribe to learn how the tribe would like to proceed. Some tribes choose to leave culturally affiliated remains in the university’s care. If the tribe desires repatriation, however, U-M returns the items after posting a public notice as required by NAGPRA, Forrest explained. The notice gives other tribes an opportunity to bring forward any claim they may have to the remains.

Since enactment of NAGPRA, the Museum of Anthropology has repatriated culturally affiliated human remains and other materials to the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and the White Mountain Apache Tribe. In each case, the university initiated the repatriation process.

Remains that currently cannot be identified as affiliated with a present-day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization are considered “culturally unidentifiable”—a designation that is subject to re-evaluation as new information becomes available and as new tribes achieve federal recognition, which gives them legal standing to seek repatriation.

“The university seeks to maintain an open dialogue with Native American tribes about the respectful treatment of the human remains it holds in anticipation of the adoption of final rules for disposition of culturally unidentifiable human remains under NAGPRA,” Forrest said.

Two factors complicate discussions with present-day tribes located in Michigan about disposition of CUHR originally found in sites in Michigan: First, tribes have moved around the geographic area and, second, remains in the Museum of Anthropology may pre-date tribes that currently live in the state. The remains held in the museum are, in general, 800-1,400 years old, although some items in the collections may be more than 3,000 years old.

The advisory committee, chaired by Toni Antonucci, the Elizabeth M. Douvan Collegiate Professor of Psychology, research professor at the Institute for Social Research Survey Research Center and associate vice president for research, will begin its work by becoming familiar with the history of NAGPRA, how NAGPRA has been implemented at U-M, national policy issues and proposed rules regarding CUHR, and the various possible outcomes of the pending rulemaking. The committee will begin meeting this month.

Committee members to date include:

–David Bloom, the Jack Lapides Professor of Urology and chair of the Department of Urology;

–Francis Blouin, professor of information and of history and director of the Bentley Historical Library;

–Sarah Buss, associate professor of philosophy;

–John Chamberlin, professor of public policy and of political science and director of the Center for Ethics in Public Life;

–Alicia Davis, professor of law;

–Philip Deloria, the Carroll Smith-Rosenberg Collegiate Professor of History, the Richard Hudson Research Professor of History and professor of American Culture;

–Raymond De Vries, professor of bioethics/medical education and of obstetrics and gynecology and adjunct professor of sociology;

–Sharon Herbert, the John G. Pedley Collegiate Professor of Classical Archaeology and curator and director of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology;

–Robert Megginson, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, professor of mathematics, and associate dean of undergraduate and graduate education, LSA;

–Kiara Vigil, graduate student in Program in American Culture;

–Steven Wright, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and professor of civil and environmental engineering.

The committee will serve as a resource for OVPR in evaluating issues related to requests for transfer of CUHR.

Forrest said the Museum of Anthropology will continue to repatriate human remains and funerary objects when likely cultural affiliation can be determined and the tribe requests such repatriation. The advisory committee will not be asked to determine cultural affiliation or review the museum’s decisions regarding likely affiliation, as those decisions already can be appealed to the National NAGPRA Review Committee.