Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

OVPR policy facilitates consultation on transfer of Native American human remains

The Office of the Vice President for Research will take a “consultation first” approach to all interactions with American Indian tribes as the university further develops its policies and procedures for the transfer of Native American human remains.

Vice President for Research Stephen Forrest established the approach as part of his announcement that he has accepted the recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Culturally Unidentifiable Human Remains.

The 12-member committee submitted nine recommendations that suggested a process for how the university might handle requests for the transfer of human remains and associated funerary objects now being held by the U-M Museum of Anthropology. The report was submitted Sept. 16.

Forrest accepted those recommendations, with some modifications, after carefully weighing the feedback he received during a monthlong period of public comment during October.

Forrest established the committee in October 2009 to advise him on the development of university policies regarding the transfer of human remains and associated funerary objects held by the university for which the cultural affiliation with any specific Native American tribe has not been established.

When the committee was formed, the federal government was in the process of issuing new rules — under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA) — regarding the transfer of human remains to tribes. Those rules were finalized earlier this year and also recommended similar transfer of associated funerary objects.

Among the key modifications Forrest made before adopting the committee’s recommendations were imposing a moratorium on any new research with NAGPRA-eligible remains and materials, and adding at least one advisory committee member from outside the university community who will bring a tribal perspective.

Forrest says it is his office’s belief that it is “essential to include a tribal perspective in discussions” that relate to the development of policies and procedures that affect Native American communities.

“We simply must get all parties talking to each other again and we believe consultation, on all aspects of this sensitive issue, is critical to developing a shared understanding,” Forrest says.

The key recommendations, now accepted by OVPR, include:

• That the university establish a clearly understood, formal process for handling requests for information about or requests for the transfer of human remains and associated funerary objects. All requests will now start with the NAGPRA project manager in OVPR.

• That the university include any funerary objects associated with culturally unidentified human remains if the remains themselves are transferred.

• That the advisory committee become a standing OVPR committee to advise Forrest on transfer requests. Forrest has added the director of the Museum of Anthropology as an ex-officio member, has committed to adding a member not a part of the university community to represent a tribal perspective, and is considering various options for further expansion.

• While the committee recommended finding appropriate space in which to store the remains, tribal leaders have, instead, asked that the remains stay where they are. Forrest says the university will respect that request.

Forrest says he expects consultation with tribal leaders to be incorporated into how the university works with Native Americans on all issues related to the human remains and associated funerary objects.

As such, letters to tribal leaders outlining the new process for requesting the transfers will be sent before the end of the month.

For a more detailed account of the advisory committee recommendations and the new OVPR policies and procedures, go to