Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Thursday, January 12, 2012

U-M makes progress in transferring Native American remains

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).

NAGPRA originally was passed in 1990, requiring museums 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.

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.

"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 at

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.