KU begins efforts to return hundreds of American Indian ancestral remains, sacred objects
Story by Lily O'Shea Becker (Kansas Reflector)
LAWRENCE — A Kansas state legislator who is a member of the Navajo Nation said she was not surprised when she learned of the American Indian human remains and funerary objects in the University of Kansas’ possession, 32 years after Congress enacted the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
Democratic Rep. Christina Haswood (Navajo) of Lawrence said she is frustrated because similar incidents relating to the act are happening across the country. She referred to recent findings at the University of North Dakota, where American Indian ancestral remains and sacred objects were found.
“KU can put out statements and press releases all they want, but we have not seen these actions taken forth, and we just want to make sure they understand the severity of this,” Haswood said.
On Sept. 20 the University of Kansas released a joint statement saying it has American Indian ancestral remains, funerary and other sacred objects in its museum collections. The university did not fully complete the process outlined in the act, which was passed by Congress in 1990.
KU previously repatriated some items. A federal database shows the university has had 380 American Indian human remains and 554 funerary objects in its possession at one point. The Lawrence Times reported this count may be from before the university initially started its repatriation process, and the number of current human remains in its possession may be closer to 200, according to Melissa Peterson (Diné), director of tribal relations at KU.
According to the University of Kansas, these human remains and items are stored in Spooner Hall and Lippincott Hall Annex, the same building as the offices of KU’s Indigenous Studies Program staff.
“We have a responsibility to follow the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a federal law enacted by Congress in 1990, which sets criteria for tribal nations to reclaim human remains (ancestors) and funerary objects held by museums,” the university said in a joint statement last week. It added: “We are working with members in our Native American community and outside consultants specializing in repatriation.”
Haswood said she has learned a lot about the act within the last week.
As a lawmaker, she said her frustration lies in the law’s wording. She believes it does not have appropriate consequences for violators.
“I think looking at this (from) a policy lawmaker’s viewpoint, I’m very frustrated that this was a law created and passed, and then we found how it can slide and fall through the cracks,” Haswood said.
Haswood, who has attended Lawrence community meetings about the repatriation process, said the overall reaction from the Lawrence American Indian community was that members felt let down and hurt by KU.
Haswood wants the university to understand the severity of its actions, and to understand death in American Indian culture and how practices differ from tribe to tribe.
“We’re making sure that they understand (the severity of this), but I think the Lawrence and non-Native community can continue to keep our university accountable,” she said.
According to its most recent statement, KU is verifying the inventory of human remains and funerary objects stored across its campus. Additionally, the university will form an advisory committee with members from the Office of Native American Initiatives, Indigenous Studies Program, Native staff and faculty, and experts.
KU also committed itself to consulting with tribal nations, surveying all its collections to present accurate accounts of current inventory, establishing a designated space in Lippincott Hall for the Indigenous Studies Program, supporting the KU American Indian community and creating institutional repatriation policies.
Haswood believes the university is being more transparent about the current repatriation process than it has in the past.
“We continue to communicate with our Native American students, staff and faculty about their needs at this time. We are also in the process of verifying the inventory across campus that was previously crafted per NAGPRA requirements and that accurately documents previous repatriation efforts. We are sharing updates on this process and other resources at https://diversity.ku.edu/repatriation,” said Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, KU’s director of news and media relations, in a statement.
Haswood said she hopes tribal sovereignty will continue to be upheld throughout the repatriation process for the tribal leaders who will work with the University of Kansas to bring home their ancestors.
“I was just really angered that our ancestors were treated this way,” Haswood said. “Maybe they’re not my ancestors, you know, of Navajo descent, but just seeing Indigenous peoples continue to be treated in this manner is quite frustrating.”
In its most recent statement, KU said: “We are fully committed to taking culturally appropriate actions as directed by the advisory committee. The intent in sharing this announcement is to publicly apologize to Native communities and peoples, past, present, and future, and to apologize to the tribal nations across North America.”