University of Kentucky, Indiana University cannot return Native American remains

A recently released ProPublica database revealed that two nearby universities ranked in the top 10 for most unreturned Native American remains.

In 1990, Congress passed legislation called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, also known as NAGPRA, which was intended to address the human rights issue of returning the remains of deceased Native American peoples to their respective tribes. Although it has been three decades since the law was introduced, at least half of the 210,000 Native American remains from museums or universities have yet to be returned. Due to a lack of federal funding for these returns, institutions have not faced consequences for violating NAGPRA.

Ten institutions across the country hold almost half of these remains, which 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 sixth in the country for no available returns with 4,504 remains not made available for return.

However, according to Kristi Willett, the university’s Executive Director of Public Relations, the university is going in a better direction.

“As part of this commitment and ongoing efforts to work with Indigenous people, the UK College of Arts and Sciences is investing nearly $900,000 in additional funding over the next three years to scale up repatriation efforts,” she said.

The investment will support new staff and resources, with plans to more than double the current team dedicated to this task, as well as bolster current staff and resources.”

University of Kentucky Arts and Sciences Dean Ana Franco-Watkins and NAGPRA Coordinator Celise Chilcote-Fricker have worked to prioritize a sustainable and substantive path for advancing the program.

Willett added the university recognizes the pain caused by the program’s past practices and hopes to prioritize transparency and consultation and collaboration with indigenous people to complete these repatriation processes while showing dignity and respect.

The University of Kentucky has partnered with the National NAGPRA Program in recent years to continue updating the database. Reparations are multi-state projects that will take time to be reflected in NAGPRA’s Inventory Completion Notices.

“Once completed, this one project will have repatriated approximately 15% of all Aboriginal people held in 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 staff and resources and will take years to thoroughly complete this process. A critical step in this process is having meaningful consultations with tribal stakeholders, which takes time.

A step above the University of Kentucky was Indiana University, which ranks fifth on the list of institutions preserving unreturned Native American remains.
Indiana University is retaining 4,838 unavailable for the return of Native American remains but unlike the University of Kentucky has returned 1,023, a 17% return rate.

Indiana University did not respond to a request for comment on the matter in a timely manner. Late last year, the United States Department of the Interior proposed some changes to the NAGPRA regulations. The department is now headed by Cabinet Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American woman to serve as Cabinet Secretary. She proposed these changes to expedite the return of these tomb and ancestral remains.

Haaland said those possessions should be returned to the tribes within three years, but some working on the repatriations have raised concerns about the proposed deadlines. Without the new regulations, the department said, the current rate of repatriation of the remaining Native American remains could take another 25 years.

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