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IU NAGRPA hosts tribes for consultation

May 23, 2016

Members of 19 Native American tribes that once called Indiana home traveled to IU Bloomington this spring to consult with faculty and staff about crucial but complex questions regarding the implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

For many of the approximately 30 tribal representatives, it was their first time to visit Indiana, says Jayne-Leigh Thomas, IU NAGPRA director and the organizer of the meeting. And for some, it was their first time to sit down with each other to discuss matters related to their shared cultural heritage.

“A lot of people had driven 12 to 14 hours to get here,” Thomas says. “I was so honored that people made the trip and that they enjoyed their time here.”

The National Park Service awarded IU a $46,348 grant to fund the gathering, which included discussions and tours of the university’s archaeological collections.

Socializing included meals at the First Nations Educational and Cultural Center and meetings with Native American students at IU — all part of a chance to establish stronger relationships among tribal and university representatives.

Participants also learned about university resources that can provide valuable information about Native American history, including the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley Ethnohistory Collection, a 350-year compilation of documents related to land issues brought before the Indiana Claims Commission; and the Archives of Traditional Music, which includes recordings of Native American music.

And many of the visitors spent the day at Angel Mounds State Historic Site near Evansville. The site, built between A.D. 1050 and 1400, had over 1,000 residents and was a religious, political and trade center.

Logan Pappenfort, NAGPRA consultant for the Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma, said he hopes the communication and collaboration established at the IU meeting will continue.

“I was very encouraged to see the care that the faculty at Indiana University had towards NAGPRA issues,” Pappenfort said. “And while at times it can be a difficult topic to discuss, I am very glad that the tribes and the university have been able to conduct an open, transparent and meaningful dialogue.”

NAGPRA, enacted in 1990 and extensively revised 2010, requires universities and museums to consult with Native American tribes and return to them human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony. IU collections, such as those at the Glenn Black Laboratory of Archaeology, the Mathers Museum of World Cultures and the Department of Anthropology, include thousands of items that are subject to the law. Some are from Angel Mounds and other Indiana locales, while others are from sites across the country.

But the task of repatriating remains and sacred items can be complex, requiring evidence of “cultural affiliation” between present-day tribes and Native American groups that, in some cases, lived long before the era of European contact. For items collected in Indiana, that can involve discussions with many of the more than 50 Native American groups whose ancestors formerly lived in the state.

That means that face-to-face dialogue involving multiple parties — like what took place at IU — is needed to move the process forward, said Kelli Mosteller of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

“It provides the best opportunity for all parties with a truly vested interest in seeing that these ancestors and objects are taken care of in an honorable way, to sit across from each other and have an open and productive dialogue,” Mosteller said.

“The work of determining cultural affiliation or expressing concerns about the care and condition of ancestors often comes down to the difficult work of trying to explain and understand minute details behind a tribe or faculty member’s argument for affiliation,” she said. “The consultation event hosted by IU created such an environment. Sensitive topics that are inherently charged with emotion were discussed and, I believe, were heard and received with open minds.

Brian Gilley, professor of anthropology at IU Bloomington and former director of the university’s First Nations Educational and Cultural Center, says the presence of human remains and sacred objects in IU collections has long been a sore spot for Native American students.

“Having the meeting and the willingness of the university to help sponsor such an event signals something about campus climate to current and prospective students,” he says. “While students might continue to be upset about the presence of ancestral remains and funerary objects, they can see that the university is engaged in rectifying past wrongs and committed to moving forward in an ethical way.

“This public engagement and transparency — as much as the law will allow — goes a long way to show Native peoples that there is engagement,” Gilley says. “Evidence of engagement tends to build trust, and trust will help current and future students see that they belong at IU Bloomington.”

Thomas, the IU NAGPRA director, said the consultation meeting was just a beginning. The next step, she says, will be to create a consortium of tribes that will take the lead in discussing how to return ancestral remains and cultural items collected in Indiana to the appropriate tribal communities.

“I am very excited about the work we have been doing, but I know we couldn’t do this without the support from our tribal partners,” she says. “We still have a lot of work to do, but we are committed to this important project and are looking forward to continuing to develop new partnerships with tribes across the Midwest and throughout the country.”

This story, by Steve Hinnefeld, originally appeared in the Inside IU Bloomington e-newsletter, May 18, 2016.