U-M reaches milestone in transferring Native American remains


With the beginning of the new year, U-M has completed the transfer of nearly half of its collections of Native American human remains and cultural objects from burial sites in Michigan to tribes that lived in the areas where they were found.

“This is a significant milestone as we work to fulfill the letter and the spirit of the law mandating the repatriation of these collections,” said Stephen Forrest, former vice president for research, who initiated the process that has led to the transfers.

Forrest stepped down as vice president Dec. 31 to focus full time on his responsibilities as a faculty member.

To date, collections from 120 sites have been transferred — 111 of them in 2013 alone. The university worked with 14 Michigan tribes in arranging these transfers.

Stephen Forrest, former vice president for research, receives a ceremonial blanket on behalf of U-M staff who have been working on the Native American remains initiative. Wrapping him in the blanket are Judy Nowak, left, retired associate vice president for research, and Jennifer Scott, research museum collection assistant. (Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)

The collections are being transferred under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a law passed in 1990 requiring museums to follow a mandatory process for transferring human remains and associated funerary objects to tribes that have requested them and have the legal right to them.

Initially, the law only focused on collections that could be culturally affiliated.  In 2010, the law addressed the issue of culturally unidentifiable collections, which constitute a large part of U-M’s holdings.

Under the law, culturally unidentifiable human remains must be transferred to the tribe or tribes that were historically located at the areas where the remains were collected. When more than one tribe has inhabited a particular area, the collections are transferred to all those tribes that have made a request, and they then determine the final disposition among themselves.

The NAGPRA law stirred debate among some members of the academic community.  

“Some scholars in the U.S. have objected to the return of these collections because the subsequent reburials preclude the opportunity for further research,” said Toni Antonucci, associate vice president for research, who oversees the repatriation process on behalf of the U-M Office of Research.

“But we have gained a great deal of good will by respecting the cultural perspective of the tribes, and we are confident that this will lead to entirely new research collaborations with them that will advance our knowledge of Native American cultures and life ways for the benefit of all.”

Antonucci said that it should take about one to two years to transfer the remainder of the collections from Michigan sites. At that point, the university will move on to transfer collections from sites in North America outside of Michigan.



  1. David Michener
    on January 8, 2014 at 11:11 am

    Profound thanks to all involved in this fundamental step forward.

  2. Wil Strickland
    on January 10, 2014 at 9:09 am

    Glad to see this change occur. About time.

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