Why is University of Minnesota Slow to Meet Obligations to Repatriate Native Artifacts?

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tags: museums, artifacts, University of Minnesota, Native American history, repatriation

The first time Albert Jenks, the founder of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Anthropology, took students to New Mexico to excavate Native American remains and funerary objects was in 1928.

Several years later, at digs in two New Mexico counties, Jenks and his students had collected hundreds of bones and thousands of funerary objects buried with those bones, including ceramic pots, jade and turquois pendants, copper bells and beads.

Although a decades-old federal law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), mandates the return of these items to the tribes whose ancestor’s graves were ransacked, many remain locked up at the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum, where they were on display as recently as 2019.

The university says it is working to return those funerary objects to several southwest tribes, including the Hopi, Pueblo, Mescalero Apaches and Zunis. Decades ago, the school transferred all the skeletal remains it had in its possession to the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC), the state agency tasked with repatriating Native American remains.

But the remains and/or funerary and cultural objects of tens of thousands of Native American ancestors are still at the Weisman Art Museum and other museums across the nation in part because repatriation requires a tribe to claim cultural affiliation, which is sometimes difficult because often tribes don’t know their ancestor’s remains are at a university or museum. Repatriation has also been slow because institutions in possession of those objects are loathe to part with them.

For instance, the indigenous artifacts were transferred from the University of Minnesota’s anthropology department to the Weisman Art Museum in 1992.

“Rather than cooperate with MIAC on NAGPRA compliance, the museum instead filed its own summary, which neither identified any items as burial-associated nor mentioned their association with the ancestors at MIAC,” said a report by the Truth Project, which probes the history of relations between tribal nations and the University of Minnesota. “While MIAC appropriately engaged in Tribal (sic) consultations and filed its own inventory in 2002, the WAM director refused to collaborate, and the museum failed to respond adequately to Tribal (sic) inquiries regarding the collection, as required by NAGPRA.”

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