University of Michigan to review policies on returning Indian remains

By David N. Goodman
Detroit, Michigan (AP) 11-09

Facing criticism for still holding the remains of about 1,400 Native Americans in its archaeological collection, the University of Michigan will be reviewing its policies on how to properly deal with Indian bones and artifacts.

A committee charged with looking at the legal, ethical and scientific concerns involved will meet for the first time next week and “will hear all sides of the story,” said Stephen Forrest, vice president for research at the Ann Arbor school.

“We want to have a very balanced approach,” he said Friday. “We are actively seeking to understand all the aspects of the problem.”

At issue is the conflicting interests of researchers and museums in studying and teaching about earlier human cultures and that of native peoples to have their religions and ancestral remains respected.

Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act passed by Congress in 1990, federally supported institutions must catalog the remains and burial items they hold and return them, when requested, to groups that have a “cultural affiliation” to them.

The issue in the Michigan case is remains which the school says have no clear affiliation to present-day tribes. Forrest said the law compels the school to retain such remains until the government issues clearer guidelines or it gets specific clearance from U.S. Interior Department.

Forrest said the goal of the committee – 10 professors and one graduate student – is to properly balance Indian rights and research goals while awaiting new federal guidelines.

It’s long past time to do the right thing, said Fred R. Harrington Jr., a representative of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.

“The law is really clear” when it comes to what institutions are supposed to do about materials whose tribal ties aren’t immediately known, said Harrington, whose tribe is based in Harbor Springs, near Petoskey in the northern Lower Peninsula.

“They’re supposed to consult with the tribes about affiliation. The university never did this.”

Forrest said the school has complied with the law in the past and intends to keep doing so.

The Little Traverse Bay group and the Bay Mills Indian Community near Sault Ste. Marie in the eastern Upper Peninsula sent separate letters to the university protesting its continued holding of Indian remains.

“To the University of Michigan, the contemporary identification, cataloging and examination of the human remains and cultural artifacts of indigenous people may constitute an academic exercise,” Bay Mills executive council President Jeffrey D. Parker wrote to Forrest. “To the Bay Mills Indian Community, these activities are unwelcome and insensitive intrusions upon our ancestors which require our active intervention to ameliorate.”

A group representing Native American graduate students at the University of Michigan expressed hope the committee’s appointment would lead to the return of remains and artifacts to Indian tribes.

“While we’re disappointed that it’s taken 19 years for the research community at the U of M to get serious about what this law asks of them, we feel grateful to be part of a responsible process being developed now,” said Veronica Pasfield, co-chair of the Native Grad Caucus.

Thousands of remains of uncertain affiliation have been turned over to tribes by institutions nationwide, including Michigan State, Stanford and Yale universities; Minnesota’s public university system; the American Museum of Natural History in New York; and the Field Museum in Chicago, the caucus said in a Feb. 15 letter to Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman.

“Please help restore our hearts, and the standing of our university among its peers,” it wrote.

On the Net:

Federal repatriation law Web site:

U-M statement:

Michigan tribal coalition on repatriation: