University of Michigan to comply with law on Native American remains

by  Martin Barillas

The University of Michigan released a statement on January 12 that after “18 months of careful deliberation, U-M has completed a formal set of policies and procedures for handling Native American human remains and cultural objects from its museum collections under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).” The statement noted that NAGPRA was passed in 1990, requiring museums such as the Ann Arbor-based institution’s Museum of Natural History to follow a mandatory process for transferring culturally affiliated human remains and associated funerary objects to individuals and groups that have requested them and have the legal right to them. On May 15, 2010, the law was expanded and clarified to embrace the transfer of culturally unidentifiable human remains.

Furthermore, read the statement, “Under the clarified law, unidentifiable remains must be transferred to the tribe or tribes that were historically located at the sites where the remains were collected. When more than one tribe has inhabited a particular area, the remains are transferred to all those that have made a request, and they then determine the final disposition among themselves.”

The University of Michigan has a small archaeological exhibit at the museum on campus that includes artifacts of various cultures, including Native American nations. In 2011, following complaints and suggestions from the public and various groups, the university removed several dioramas depicting Native American culture that had been judged outdated and in an incorrect context. The dioramas, depicting Native American life and ceremonies, had been juxtaposed with skeletons and fossils of extinct animals.

“Although the formal documentation of the policies and procedures has just been completed, we have been making steady progress since the law was clarified,” says Vice President for Research Stephen Forrest, whose office oversees the repatriation and disposition process. “Our approach is to follow both the letter and spirit of the law, and to respect the cultural requirements of the tribes in the process.”   U-M has received requests for all 221 sites in Michigan represented in its collections, and it has been systematically working closely with the tribes on the transfer of the requested items. The museum holds items from another 182 sites in North America outside of Michigan.

U-M’s total collections consist of the remains of just more than 1,600 MNI (Minimum Number of Individuals), including 1,200 from Michigan, and more than 16,000 funerary objects, about 7,300 from Michigan. The document “Policy and Procedures for the University of Michigan’s NAGPRA Collections” is available on the Web here. The report was prepared by a 13-member faculty advisory committee chaired by Toni Antonucci, associate vice president for research in support of social sciences and humanities; Elizabeth M. Douvan Collegiate Professor of Psychology, LSA; and research professor at the Institute for Social Research.

An example of archeological sites in Michigan that have come to the attention of local Native American tribes is an urban renewal project in the city of Flint. On Stone Street, in an older part of the city on a hill surmounted by Hurley Hospital and overlooking Atwood Stadium and Chevy-in-the-Hole, were discovered human remains that were identified as being Native American. The Flint Journal reported in August 2008 that initially knew very little about the remains but nonethless identifying as Anishinabek. The term is used to encompass indigenous nations including the Ojibwe, Potawatomi and Odawa. The digging of the remains was funded by the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe, which then had them examined. The Genesee County Land Bank, which had been developing the land when the remains were discovered, turned the land over to the tribe. The Stone Street site is now a small memorial park.

Source: Energy Publisher

 

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