Post last updated at 10:57 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 20; photo updated at 2:15 p.m.:
The University of Kansas has remains of Native American people in its museum collections, according to a statement from administrators.
The remains are being stored in the annex of Lippincott Hall, which is the building that currently houses offices of staff members in KU’s Indigenous Studies program. Offices were closed Tuesday, and they will be moved to a different location on campus.
KU Chancellor Douglas Girod; Barbara Bichelmeyer, provost and executive vice chancellor; Nicole Hodges Persley, interim vice provost for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging; and Melissa Peterson (Diné), director of tribal relations, sent out a joint statement Tuesday morning.
“While some efforts have been made in the past to repatriate items, the process was never completed,” the statement says. “The continued possession of these human remains causes great pain for many in the Native community and beyond.”
“As a university, we have a responsibility to follow the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a federal law enacted by Congress in 1990, which sets criteria for tribal nations to reclaim human remains (ancestors) and funerary objects held by museums,” according to the statement. “The University has a responsibility to tribal nations and the Native American community to continue a relationship built on dignity, respect, and enduring support.”
An online federal database shows that KU is in possession of remains belonging to a minimum of 380 individuals, as well as 554 associated funerary objects. However, Peterson said that 380 number was probably from a complete inventory that KU did back in the 90s.
The current number of individuals may be closer to 200 — “That is early kind of numbers that we received. We don’t know lots of details, but that’s what we’re working on so that we’re able to … identify those that will need to consult with tribes and kind of go through the NAGPRA process and then just to understand the issue” of why KU has these remains, Peterson said.
She said the discovery came about recently because “We’ve had new people start at KU, and I think someone from the museum was getting to know the collections and realized these were in there and that’s when it was brought forward.”
KU’s Indigenous Studies Program tweeted on Tuesday, “It’s been a heavy, heavy week. There are no words. Please keep our Native students, faculty, staff, alums and community in your thoughts as we try to process this and work for all ancestors to find their way home.”
KU is still gathering information, according to the administrators’ statement.
“We are fully committed to the work of creating meaningful institutional memory by properly repatriating the ancestors and funerary objects,” the statement continues. “We are working with members in our Native American community and outside consultants specializing in repatriation.”
Peterson said the university is planning to make a website that will have updates on the NAGPRA process.
Spokespeople for KU’s Natural History Museum and Spencer Museum of Art forwarded our requests for information to Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, a spokesperson for the university.
“We are working to (communicate) more fully with our Native American students, staff and faculty and address their immediate needs at this time,” Barcomb-Peterson said. “We are still gathering information and will share more details in the future.”
Geographic origins listed for the remains and artifacts attributed to KU in the online database include Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York and several counties in Kansas. Remains of at least 73 individuals are listed as coming from an unknown geographic origin.
Rep. Christina Haswood, a Lawrence Democrat and Diné, tweeted late Tuesday, “My heart is heavy with this news and how we have ancestors who have not completed the journey home. Native students of Lawrence, I’m here if you need my support.”
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Cuyler Dunn (he/him), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a student at the University of Kansas School of Journalism. He is a graduate of Lawrence High School where he was the editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Budget, and was named the 2022 Kansas High School Journalist of the Year. Read more of this work for the Times here.