Native American scholar James Riding In: Stored remains a human rights violation
The continued holding of Native American remains in storage lockers and boxes by museums and federal agencies is a human rights violation, a visiting Pawnee scholar said during a speech at the University of Michigan.
James Riding In, an associate professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University, stopped by U-M's Rackham Graduate School Monday to discuss the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
"Why is it that there's a ghoulish curiosity regarding Indian graves?" Riding In asked the audience of about 75.
The U-M Museum of Anthropology holds collections of 1,400 culturally unaffiliated Indian remains and thousands of cultural items on campus, to the ire of some Native American groups. Riding In pointed out the University of California Berkeley has had as many as 12,000 human remains in its anthropology museum's collections.
NAGPRA regulates the legal process by which institutions, museums and federal agencies that accept federal funds document and return Native American human remains and cultural items. Under NAGPRA, remains must be culturally identified through a process of consultation before being returned to either federally recognized tribes or direct descendants.
Unaffiliated remains can also be returned if the institution and tribes first come to an agreement and then follow a regulated review process.
Otherwise, the remains are designated as culturally unaffiliated and remain in storage or collections. There is no time limit on consultation and the designated status can change.
But the law makes the process too difficult, Riding In said, and it gives museums and institutions too much power.
"These institutions do not give remains back automatically," he said. We have had to fight to get these remains back."
"NAGPRA is flawed," he continued. "It leaves the determination of cultural affiliation with museums and federal agencies. It's like leaving the chicken coop under the control of the fox."
But scientists maintain there are valid reasons for holding onto human remains.
"One of the biggest reasons I think it's important we retain remains is because of the advances that are being made in the recovery and analysis of human DNA," said John O'Shea, NAGPRA coordinator for the U-M Museum of Anthropology.
A U-M panel was formed last month to examine ethical and scientific concerns like those of O'Shea and Riding In surrounding the storage of the remains. U-M spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said he does not have information today about what the panel has done so far.
O'Shea said the panel has made plans to meet with museum director Carla Sinopoli later this month.Â
U-M Vice President for Research Stephen Forrest announced the advisory group's formation at the October Board of Regents meeting. The panel was formed to prepare for an expected change to the federal law.
National NAGPRA officials said they don't know what that change might entail. National NAGPRA is a federal government program that assists the U.S. Secretary of the Interior with responsibilities related to the act.
The event was sponsored by the U-M Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, Native American Student Association and support from Native American Studies. November is Native Heritage Month.
The next Native Heritage Month event isÂ a 6 p.m. Nov. 30 screening of "Noho Newa: Wrongful Occupation of Hawai'i," in the Modern Language Building, Auditorium 3, with Director Keala Kelly.
Juliana Keeping covers higher education for AnnArbor.com. Reach her at email@example.com or 734-623-2528.