The funerary objects have been housed at the Weisman Art Museum since 1992. (Image by Emily Pofahl)
The funerary objects have been housed at the Weisman Art Museum since 1992.

Image by Emily Pofahl

UMN begins repatriation of Mimbres-cultural collections after 32 years of non-compliance

The University of Minnesota collected Native ancestor remains and associated funerary objects nearly 100 years ago and has since been non-compliant with a federal law requiring the inventory and return of all collections.

Published December 1, 2022

The University of Minnesota possesses collections of Native American ancestor remains and associated funerary objects that were supposed to be repatriated to their respective Tribes more than 30 years ago.

The Board of Regents approved the University to begin the repatriation process at the February board meeting. The University began an initial inventory in June and the final inventory is due in December.

The Mimbres-cultural collections the University possesses are from grave sites the anthropology department excavated in New Mexico nearly 100 years ago and are most likely affiliated with Pueblo Tribes, including the Hopi Nation.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 required the University to inventory and return the collections under federal law, however, the University did not comply with these regulations for 32 years.

Melanie O’Brien, the national NAGPRA program manager, sent a letter to University President Joan Gabel in December 2021 urging for the University’s immediate compliance with NAGPRA.

“The University’s confusion might have been understandable in 1993, when it submitted its summary to the National Park Service,” O’Brien said. “But from December 4, 1995 and thereafter, the University knew or should have known that the funerary objects in question are associated funerary objects, and that they must be included in an inventory.”

History of archaeological suppression
Before NAGPRA, there were no federal protections against archaeological excavation of Native peoples and their belongings. Federal legislation allowed archaeologists and institutions to excavate objects and ancestors belonging to Native nations from 1906 to 1989.

The National Museum of the Native American Indian Act in 1989 required the Smithsonian Institution to return Native cultural items.

“Only [the National Museum of the Native American Indian Act] and NAGPRA acknowledge that those ancestors and cultural materials should be under the control of Native nations,” said Kat Hayes, an anthropology professor specializing in archaeological ethics and repatriation. “The others protect them as national heritage or as cultural resources with scientific value.”

According to National Park Services (NPS), NAGPRA requires all institutions that receive federal funding, such as the University and the Weisman Art Museum, to follow the regulations. NAGPRA requires the repatriation of all Native ancestor remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony.

Non-compliance can result in civil penalties such as fines and removal of federal funding.

“Our Cultural Resource Unit had been urging the University to fix this wrong for many years. Under NAGPRA, they could have been fined and had all federal funding cut off,” Shannon Geshick, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC) and citizen of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, said in an email to the Minnesota Daily.

Although NAGPRA was the first comprehensive federal law to acknowledge Native nations’ rights to human remains and artifacts, there are issues with the lack of definition in the law, Hayes said.

NAGPRA does not apply to private lands or privately funded institutions. It also does not define what tribal consultation is. The institutions that possess Native objects and ancestor remains are left to determine the cultural affiliation of objects and remains under NAGPRA instead of the Native communities they belong to.

“What has happened with NAGPRA is that it seems that no one’s asked lawyers how to do this, instead it’s archaeologists, anthropologists and museum curators who are trying to interpret it from their points of view,” Shannon O’Loughlin, chief executive and attorney for the Association on American Indian Affairs and citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said.

The University’s era of non-compliance
University faculty and students led by anthropology professor Albert Jenks conducted excavations that included thousands of Mimbres objects and ancestor remains in New Mexico from 1928 to 1931, according to a statement by the Weisman.

The objects consisted of stone tools, arrowheads, points, animal-bone awls, beads, pendants and painted bowls.

The anthropology department largely kept the objects and remains together until 1989 when the Mimbres ancestors were transferred to MIAC. The funerary objects, other items and historical documentation were transferred to the Weisman Art Museum in 1992, where they remain today.

The University and the Weisman filed a summary of their collections but never completed a full inventory as required by NAGPRA.

“The summary lacks the level of detail that would have allowed MIAC to put the associated objects back together with the ancestors,” Hayes said.

A summary does not count as an inventory, which is required as part of the repatriation process for human remains and associated funerary objects, according to the NPS.

Former Weisman director Lyndel King, who served from 1981-2020, said she believed the museum was compliant with NAGPRA and their non-compliance was “an honest mistake.”

“The University, in essence, was holding those ancestors, and their related funerary objects for ransom by continuing to stall the inventory,” said An Garagiola research assistant for the Towards Recognition and University-Tribal Healing (TRUTH) Project and descendant of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa.

Geshick said MIAC was appalled the University violated NAGPRA for more than 30 years.

“To our knowledge, they have not established policies that ensure that this abomination will never happen again,” Geshick said.

Misty Blue, a TRUTH Project coordinator and citizen of the White Earth Nation, said she would like to see a streamlined process put in place for rematriation efforts to happen regularly and on a sizable scale.

“For more than 170 years, the University has expropriated land, grabbed knowledge and taken sacred items from Native communities,” Blue said. “Rematriation efforts are an incredibly important step to begin to repair harm and these items need to be returned home.”

The University begins NAGPRA compliance
After 32 years of non-compliance with NAGPRA regulations, the Board of Regents passed a resolution on Feb. 11 to begin the repatriation of Mimbres-cultural objects.

“I think the Board thought it was a choice when it really is not a choice at all,” Douglas Thompson, assistant professor in the American Indian studies department at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, said.

O’Loughlin said she expects the University’s repatriation process to take a long time because artifacts have been dispersed between universities nationwide. O’Loughlin said loose regulations and financial incentives to keep their collections might further slow the process.

“If you take something that’s not yours, you give it back,” O’Loughlin said. “Instead, they do a lot to create burdens for tribes who are trying to repatriate.”

O’Loughlin said many tribes do not have the capacity or desire to fight with institutions over the collections they possess and would rather repatriation be a healing process.

“They don’t want to fight because this has to do with protecting ancestors’ religious items, and they don’t want to bring controversy to that process,” O’Loughlin said.

O’Loughlin said she thinks the problem with institutions, the science of archeology and anthropology, is that they have the notion that people who are Western civilized individuals are the only ones with the right to tell a story about who Native people are.

“There’s just this institutional racism that has been a part of these academic institutions that we’re fighting against,” O’Loughlin said.

Weisman starts the healing process
Alejandra Peña-Gutiérrez began her role as the Weisman Art Museum’s director in 2021 and began working with the repatriation process shortly after.

“I cannot speak for what happened in the past, I don’t have that perspective … I’m also not very worried about that,” Peña-Gutiérrez said. “I just want to move forward with this.”

Peña-Gutiérrez filed the first inventory in June. After the initial filing, they have six months to complete a final inventory, according to NAGPRA regulations.

Peña-Gutiérrez said she understands Native voices should take the lead and the Weisman is in no position to have any expectations or demands from the tribes.

“This is going to be a very long process that we have to listen to what the desires of the tribes are, and we have to wait and see how they decide for us to move forward,” Peña-Gutiérrez said.

Karen Diver, senior advisor to the president on Native American affairs, said in an email to the Minnesota Daily that the University takes its legal and moral obligations seriously regarding the repatriation of Native American ancestors and items of cultural patrimony.

Peña-Gutiérrez has also been following up with joint inventories from the other intuitions the University dispersed objects to and is now filing inventories with.

Juan Lucero, an independent curator working on Native contemporary art and member of the Weisman’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee as well as a citizen of the Isleta Pueblo Tribe, said it is up to the museum to find the objects they dispersed and retrieve them for return. He added he is grateful the Weisman started that process.

Peña-Gutiérrez said she also acknowledges the mistrust many Native communities, even within Minnesota, have for the University and the Weisman. Her main focus is rebuilding those relationships.

Angelique EagleWoman, professor and director of the Native American Law and Sovereignty Institute at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law and citizen of the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota Oyate, said the rebuilding process is much longer and more difficult than some people expect.

“One thing I don’t think is often understood is that when cooperation and collaboration starts, there may not be an immediate surge of gratitude because of the long history of resistance and barriers,” EagleWoman said.

The Weisman started a Truth and Reconciliation project in 2020, which received a $239,912 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) on Nov. 15.

The Native American Advisory Board for this project will aid in consultation and issues of reconciliation with Indigenous communities, Peña-Gutiérrez said.

The Weisman also met with Tribal leaders from the Southwest on Oct. 4-6 to discuss the items the Weisman has and start a conversation about how to move forward, said Peña-Gutiérrez.

“It’s happening now, but it still doesn’t make up for the past thirty years,” EagleWoman said.

Lucero said he thinks what the Weisman is doing is significant for an institution on a national and international level. However, he thinks the excavations should not have happened in the first place.

“It’s always been my goal to bring light to these issues…I am really glad everything is finally able to go home … a lot of that stuff was never meant to be dug up,” Lucero said.

Garagiola said repatriation is more than just mailing items back to people, there are many culturally sensitive and financial obligations to consider.

“There’s oftentimes certain ceremonies that need to take place, ceremonies that sometimes can only happen at certain times of the year, or be done by certain people within a tribal community. We need to ask whose responsibility it is to bear the burden of those costs,” Garagiola said.

As the University completes the final inventory, Hayes said the most important part is to continue conversations with all 20 of the affiliated tribes listed with the objects.

EagleWoman also said Tribal nations existed long before the University and as a land-grant institution it is in the University’s best interest to continue the collaboration.

“I think it’s important for universities to have advisory boards composed of tribal people and tribal government representatives to ensure that they are handling these important cultural issues ethically, responsibly and in a manner that strengthens the relationship,” EagleWoman said.

New NAGPRA amendments to the regulations
New regulations under NAGPRA have been proposed and published, with a comment period through Jan. 17, 2023, O’Loughlin said.

“I invite folks to look for that, it’s a complete overhaul. It’s what we’ve been asking for from the Department of Interior,” O’Loughlin said. 

EagleWoman said one of the changes to NAGPRA is instead of tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations reaching out to institutions to request repatriation, it will be up to the institutions to update their inventory and begin the repatriation process. 

It will also eliminate the idea of culturally unidentifiable human remains and funerary objects and replace it with geographic affiliation, EagleWoman said. 

“This allows the local tribal nations to know that that’s their ancestor, that’s their relative. Where in the past they [institutions] could hide behind the culturally unidentifiable label, and then not have to return anything,” EagleWoman said. 

EagleWoman said her hope is that universities will start respecting the fact that Native people are not specimens of study.

“Native Americans are only asking to be treated as human beings and have their ancestors finally put to rest in culturally appropriate ways,” EagleWoman said. “We have the right to culturally lay our ancestors to rest and put to rest any of their associated items rather than have them on display for foreign people to look at.”

EagleWoman said her hope is that universities will start respecting the fact that Native people are not specimens of study.

“Native Americans are only asking to be treated as human beings and have their ancestors finally put to rest in culturally appropriate ways,” EagleWoman said. “We have the right to culturally lay our ancestors to rest and put to rest any of their associated items rather than have them on display for foreign people to look at.”


Correction: A previous version of this article misstated who the parties were in an October meeting. The Weisman met with Tribal leaders from the Southwest on Oct. 4-6. 

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