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.