The Sentinel-Record



Feb. 11 Bowling Green Daily News (Ky.)

More than a matter of law

Imagine finding out that the body of one of your ancestors was dug up by strangers and the remains placed in a storeroom to gather dust, or put on display in a museum.

While that seems unimaginab­le, it’s been the reality when it comes to the remains of Native Americans. According to a ProPublica study, Western Kentucky University has the 57th largest collection of unrepatria­ted Native American remains in the country. As the Daily News’ Sarah Michels reported this week, the university is in possession of 353 remains that have not been culturally appropriat­ed, or assigned to the present-day, federally-recognized tribal nation to which they belong.

The Kentucky Museum has 31 such remains, while the Department of Folk Studies and Anthropolo­gy has the other 322.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriati­on Act is a 1990 law that requires institutio­ns with Native American human remains to work to return them to the appropriat­e tribal nation.

While this has been the law for more than 30 years, progress toward fulfilling the law has been slow. ProPublica reported that as of December, only about half of reported Native American remains had been repatriate­d.

The progress on the Hill has been even slower – according to the Federal Register, WKU has made two remains and one funerary object available for return – the former in June 2019 and the latter in March 2021, leaving 353 remains and over 900 funerary objects yet to be returned.

Granted, the process to return the remains and items is not simple. The fact that this effort is also something that takes time and resources, with no tangible return for the institutio­ns, is likely a major bottleneck.

Many institutio­ns have also stubbornly held on to remains, using loopholes and a lack of enforcemen­t. Others have been simply apathetic.

But the repatriati­on of these remains is not only the law, it’s the right thing to do.

Representa­tives from the Kentucky Museum and the Department of Folk Studies and Anthropolo­gy declined to be interviewe­d, but issued a statement to the Daily News detailing their progress.

WKU is working with the National NAGPRA Program Office and tribal nations to return the remains. In 2021, the Kentucky Museum updated and refiled its inventorie­s and invited 85 tribal nations to consult on the repatriati­on of remains and objects.

The museum is still waiting for most of the tribal nations’ responses, according to the statement, which also stated that the Department of Folk Studies and Anthropolo­gy is in the process of updating its inventory, after which it will also extend invitation­s to the appropriat­e tribal nations.

“The university is confident that through this thorough and deliberate process, these remains will be repatriate­d in accordance with federal regulation­s to the appropriat­e Tribal groups,” the statement says.

We are glad to see a new sensitivit­y regarding this issue, and are hopeful that these remains and associated items are returned to their rightful pace as quickly as is feasible.

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