Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Friday, May 14, 2010

U-M sees opportunity for working with
Native American communities

A new federal rule that takes effect today regulating the transfer of Native American human remains provides an important opportunity for U-M to work with Native American communities.

More information
Click here to go to the Web site of the Advisory Committee on Culturally Unidentifiable Human Remains under NAGPRA.

That’s the view of Stephen Forrest, vice president for research. His office will oversee the transfer of human remains controlled by the university but for which no culturally affiliated Indian tribe has been identified.

“Of course we will respectfully comply with the law,” Forrest says. “But more importantly the rule gives us a framework for establishing trust and strengthening working relationships with Indian tribes in Michigan and elsewhere.”

The new rule was adopted as an extension of rules implementing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, which gave standing to lineal descendents and culturally affiliated tribes to seek repatriation of burial remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and cultural patrimony. It did not address the disposition of culturally unidentifiable human remains.

In the collection of the Museum of Anthropology, U-M has the remains of about 1,600 Native American individuals unidentifiable with an existing tribe.

Forrest says both his office and the Museum of Anthropology are seeking additional staff to facilitate the outreach to tribes, consultations and transfers.

While some are worried that the transfers will limit future research opportunities, Forrest sees it differently.

“Developing trusting relationships may facilitate future communications about ways of asking and answering questions of broad interest to both the university and native communities.”

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.

NAGPRA requires federal agencies and organizations that receive federal funds to submit to the U.S. Department of the Interior inventories of Native American human remains in their possession, 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, culturally unidentifiable remains are to be transferred to a Native American tribe from whose tribal or aboriginal lands the remains were excavated or removed.

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