A recently published ProPublica database revealed that two nearby universities ranked in the top 10 for most unreturned Native American remains.
In 1990, Congress passed a law called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, also known as NAGPRA, which intended to address the human rights issue of returning the remains of deceased Indigenous peoples to their respective tribes. Although three decades have passed since the incorporation of this law, at least half of the 210,000 Native American remains have yet to be returned by museums or universities. With a lack of federal funding for these repatriations, institutions have not faced consequences when violating NAGPRA.
Ten institutions nationwide hold almost half of these remains that have yet to be returned to their respective Indigenous groups. This list includes Indiana University and the University of Kentucky. The University of Kentucky ranked number six in the country with 4,504 remains not made available for return with no available returns made.
However, according to the university’s Executive Director of Public Relations Kristi Willett, the university is heading in a better direction.
“As part of that commitment to and ongoing efforts working with Native nations, the UK College of Arts and Sciences is investing nearly $900,000 in additional funds over the next three years to expand repatriation efforts,” she said.
The investment will support new personnel and resources, with plans to more than double the current team devoted to the effort, as well as bolster current staffing and resources.”
The University of Kentucky Arts and Sciences Dean Ana Franco-Watkins and NAGPRA Coordinator Celise Chilcote-Fricker have been working to prioritize a sustainable and substantive path moving forward with the program.
Willett added the university recognizes the pain caused by previous practices of the program and they hope to prioritize being transparent and consulting and collaborating with Native nations to complete these repatriation processes while showing dignity and respect.
The University of Kentucky has partnered with the National NAGPRA Program over the last few years to continue updating the database. Reparations are multi-state projects that take time to reflect in the NAGPRA Notices of Inventory Completion.
“Once complete, this one project will have repatriated about 15% of all Native ancestors held at the William S. Webb Museum,” Willett said.
In a press release, Chilcote-Fricker noted that due to the size of the NAGPRA collections at the Webb Museum, this will require extensive staffing and resources and will take years in order to be thorough in completing this process. A critical step in this process is to have meaningful consultations with tribal stakeholders which takes time.
One step above the University of Kentucky was Indiana University, ranked fifth on the list of institutions holding unreturned Native American remains.
Indiana University withholds 4,838 unavailable for return of Native American remains, but unlike the University of Kentucky, has returned 1,023 which puts them at a 17% return rate.
When asked to comment on the matter Indiana University did not respond by deadline. Late last year the United States Department of the Interior proposed some changes to NAGPRA regulations. The department is now being led by Cabinet Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary. She proposed these changes in order to expedite the return of these funerary and ancestral remains.
Haaland said these belongings should be returned within three years to tribes, but some who work on the repatriations have voiced concerns about the proposed timelines. Without the new regulations, the department said the current rate of repatriating the rest of the Native American remains could take another 25 years to complete.
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