Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: OPINION: Returning Indigenous remains is the correct move for universities, institutions

The Daily News-Miner applauds a bipartisan coalition of senators urging immediate compliance with a lawful federal act in existence for more than 30 years that mandates a return of ancestral remains and related cultural artifacts taken from Indigenous people in Alaska and countless Lower 48 sites.

 Leading the charge is U.S. Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and our state’s Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Particularly disturbing is that the senators cite remains that were desecrated or exhibited as specimens for the public.

 Institutions pressured to hand back remains and artifacts include the U.S. Interior Department which, significantly, is empowered by the federal government to assess civil penalties against institutions found not in compliance.

 Noncompliance covers a wide range of issues, including failure to maintain a proper inventory, failure to inform tribes and relevant organizations of all holdings, and failure to publish a Federal Register notice before repatriating cultural items. (Note: The Interior Department publishes documents in the Federal Register and works hand-in-glove with the Bureau of Land Management.)

 To be sure, not all institutions that have had remains are remiss. Some evidence of compliance with NAGPRA has been reported by museums and institutions. In Alaska, database data shows that nearly all of 200 Native Alaskan remains taken from the North Slope Borough were made available to proper caretakers in 14 tribes. Other Alaska areas where remains have been taken over time include the Tanana River Valley, Nome Census Area, the Aleutians, Kodiak Island Borough, Kenai Peninsula Borough and more.

  The concerns of Sen. Murkowski and Sen. Schatz may put pressure on institutional collections to clearly define what they believe constitutes “cultural affiliations” when referring to specific remains of tribal ancestors. In the past, institutions have been slow to return remains or even refused to return remains by choosing to render their own interpretation of what determines “cultural affiliations,” particularly with prehistoric remains.

 According to one media investigation source, ProPublica, prominent organizations stonewalling over returning human remains and, especially, prehistoric remains include the New York-based American Museum of Natural History, the Springfield-based Illinois State Museum, and the University of Tennessee. These are hardly alone in noncompliance, however.

 We understand that some institutions may be reluctant to part with bones and other remains because they feel more study is needed due to scientific advances in areas such as genomic testing. In such situations, we understand time extensions may be justified if requested. Although their overall collections are smaller than the preceding institutions, the University of Missouri reports 6% compliance, the University of Kentucky 3%, the University of Florida 13%, Indiana University, 17% and Cal-Berkeley 22%. Those percentages need be addressed. Other prestigious institutions singled out by Sen. Schatz and Sen. Murkowski include Harvard University and the Ohio History Connection. Happily, the University of Alaska Fairbanks is in compliance, according to the database.

 Otherwise, the News-Miner absolutely concurs that Sen. Murkowski’s request for compliance is both justified, necessary and, as our state’s Indigenous peoples repeatedly state, long, long, long overdue. Much of the unreturned remains and materials were kept moldering untouched in shelves and boxes for decades.

 Institutions should cease the stonewalling, the excuse-making and the indifference to the concerns of Indigenous peoples and do the right thing now.

By:  News Miner
Source: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner