Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Friday, March 26, 2010

U-M initiates process for returning American Indian human remains

U-M has begun outlining a process for the transfer of Native American human remains to Indian tribes.

Vice President for Research Stephen Forrest said the most recent activities are in response to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s March 15 publication of a final rule clarifying how museums and other agencies — including the university — should handle Native American human remains that are under their control but for which no culturally affiliated Indian tribe has been identified.

Other resources
• Web site of the Advisory Committee on Culturally Unidentifiable Human Remains under NAGPRA
Culturally Unidentifiable Native American Inventory Database for the U-M Musem of Anthopology

“Now that the Department of the Interior has clarified the rule for transferring culturally unidentifiable human remains, it is important that the university reach out to tribal leaders and facilitate the transfer process,” Forrest said.

Forrest said he anticipates having a process in place by the time the new federal rule takes effect May 14. The university has in its possession the remains of about 1,390 individuals unidentifiable with an existing tribe.

 “The rule change recently announced provides a clear path for the transfer of the human remains in our possession,” Forrest said. “We will move down that path in a transparent, swift and respectful manner.” Officials and traditional religious leaders will be included in the consultation process. A letter to relevant tribes will be sent soon.

Last fall Forrest appointed the 12-member Advisory Committee on Culturally Unidentifiable Human Remains under NAGPRA to provide advice and guidance on the procedures used to notify and consult with groups from whose tribal or aboriginal lands the remains were removed.

The new rule was adopted because the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 did not include rules for the disposition of culturally unidentifiable human remains.  

The Department of the Interior published a proposed rule for public comment in 2007.  The department received 138 written comments from Native American tribes and organizations, museums and scientific organizations, federal agencies and the public.  The final rule addresses issues raised during that process.

NAGPRA required federal agencies and organizations that receive federal funds to submit to the Department of the Interior inventories of Native American human remains in their possessions and to include their best judgment as to whether the remains are culturally affiliated with a present day Indian tribe or known earlier group or are culturally unidentifiable because no shared group identity can be reasonably traced.

Culturally affiliated remains are repatriated upon request after a public comment period. 

The new rule specifies that after appropriate consultation, transfer of culturally unidentifiable remains is to be made to an Indian tribe from whose tribal or aboriginal lands the remains were excavated or removed.

The U-M Museum of Anthropology has in its collection unidentifiable Native American remains from archaeological sites in 37 states.

Now that the new rule has clarified the process, Forrest said his office will be the university point of contact for requests and will take the necessary steps to facilitate the transfer of Native American human remains in the U-M collection to tribes.