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Native American students mourn after ancestral remains discovered in KU’s possession

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Students hope for accountability from the university, understanding from the community

Many Native American students, staff and faculty as well as their surrounding community were left in mourning after they learned that unidentified ancestors’ remains were discovered in University of Kansas museum collections.

Staff members believe KU is probably in possession of remains of about 200 individuals, though that’s a preliminary number. Students said they have learned that remains and funerary objects have been stored or used in research in Fraser Hall, Spooner Hall and the Natural History Museum in addition to Lippincott Hall, which is where offices of KU’s Indigenous Studies Program (ISP) staff members are housed.

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Tweesna Rose Mills, Shoshone-Yakama-Umatilla Nations, co-chair of KU’s First Nations Student Association (FNSA), said though at her core, she was saddened and angered to learn of the news, this is yet another instance of Indigenous erasure.

“We kind of get brushed under the rug — not just our issues, but who we are as a people. Even after death, we’re still fighting for our rights to be Indian,” Mills said.

In a statement released Tuesday, KU administrators said “While some efforts have been made in the past to repatriate items, the process was never completed.” The statement also said KU was gathering more information.

‘Their descendants could well be on campus’

Myltin Bighorn, Fort Peck Sioux, said when he heard the news, he felt mixed emotions of sadness, anger and confusion — but not shock.

“When I first heard about it, I thought to myself, ‘I wish I could say I was surprised,’ just because of the amount of times things like this happen within the Native American community all over the country — let alone on a college campus. I’m still kind of wrapping my head around what’s really going on and what really happened,” said Bighorn, a graduate student in sports management at KU and co-chair of FNSA.

D’Arlyn Bell, Cherokee Nation, explained that each tribe is different in tradition and practice when it comes to death and burial. Bell is currently a doctoral student at KU, member of FNSA, and board member of the Indigenous Community Center (ICC) in Lawrence.

“For me, death is sacred and what happens to the vessel that is home to our spirit is really important,” Bell said.

“I personally believe that there are consequences for not following the wishes of our ancestors or keeping our ceremonies and practices. We know now that KU is in possession of just hundreds of our ancestors’ remains, which have been stored on campus in a very disrespectful and irreverent way.”

Delilah Begay, Diné, junior at KU double majoring in film and media studies and linguistics, said she felt “very conflicted” when she heard the news. She said she wants KU to take full accountability and to apologize.

“As a Navajo, we do not talk about the dead, and this is very taboo for myself from my culture,” Begay said via email. “So this being something that occurred on campus scares me and makes me feel very unseen by the university. Currently, I am sad that those ancestors did not get to be put to rest with their people, and I am nervous about being on campus sometimes now about it.

“These were people and their descendants could well be on campus. I also would just like the acknowledgment that the Native faculty and students were kind of disrespected by this. It is very hurtful and scary.”

Along with being co-chair of FNSA, Mills is a current master of arts student at KU, lecturer in the film department, and alum of the ISP. She said she was most taken aback by the remains being stored in Lippincott Hall.

“That’s one of the only places that we feel we can go to as Indigenous people because we don’t have a room, we don’t have a building — we have to create these spaces, and for them to literally take that away by putting unidentified Indigenous human remains there … it’s like no one even cared to this day,” Mills said.

“I almost had to laugh. I wasn’t gonna waste any tears or any energy being angry because I know that this is an ongoing issue. I’m not surprised that they’ve been there for that long and [have been] forgotten, but I’m just glad that we’re dealing with this issue.”

The remains are specifically located in the Lippincott annex, the little building behind the main building, which Bell said is very insensitive.

The back side of Lippincott Hall on the University of Kansas campus is pictured on Sept. 20, 2022. The annex is the rectangular portion of the building on the left side of this image. (Cuyler Dunn/Lawrence Times)

“For me personally, this is a reminder that a lot of people are still incredibly culturally ignorant because I just cannot fathom how those who knew about this could possibly think that Natives would be OK with going to class or being in and around buildings with the bones of our relatives,” Bell said.

The ISP students are no longer able to gather in Lippincott Hall. The program has been allotted a conference room in Snow Hall, which students feel is not enough space, according to Alicia Swimmer, Sicangu/Oglala Lakota enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

Swimmer, who’s a graduate student in the ISP as well as an office assistant for Indigenous Studies and Museum Studies, said she feels that the situation shows Indigenous culture isn’t valued at KU.

“We just feel betrayed and disrespected,” Swimmer said. We would like to know — like they should have just at least said, ‘Hey, by the way, we still have all these remains that we never repatriated.’ Nowhere was that disclosed that they have them right there, with our program specifically.”

She said that “We do not want to go in. Our Native faculty also left their whole offices intact and have to conduct ceremonies before reclaiming things in their office. We are in proximity to other Natives from different cultures and need to do our best to protect eachother. So yes these should be protected religious, cultural, and spiritual beliefs.”

Swimmer said she usually has to walk by Fraser Hall to get to Blake Hall, so she’s had to take a different route.

“We just need the support that people are aware of what we’re going through every day on campus,” she said. “… And you gotta think about other cultures. There’s other cultures. KU has a lot of international community, and you gotta think about their beliefs in death and how they’re supposed (to) operate around human remains because we all have customs like that.”

‘It’s about healing and moving forward’

The FNSA along with some ISP students, Haskell Indian Nations University students, and Indigenous community members on Wednesday evening met to provide support, discuss updates and action plans, and allow students to ask questions. More than 40 people were in attendance, according to Mills.

“The students coming together, just showing up, is a step forward. I said yesterday, ‘It’s about healing.’ A lot of, yes, we’re angry, we don’t understand. But it was great for us to come together. You left feeling like your hearts weren’t so heavy,” Mills said.

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Melissa Peterson, Diné, KU’s director of tribal relations, during the meeting shared updates from KU’s administration and assured the community that KU was serious about repatriating the remains, Bighorn said. KU must follow protocol set by the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, which outlines how tribal nations can reclaim their ancestors from museums. 

Bighorn said many people showed up to the meeting “understandably angry,” but felt more comforted by the end. He hopes KU leadership will feel prompted to work on all aspects of the Native American student experience.

“KU can talk all they want, make payments all they want — but without any type of action, it proves nothing, it shows nothing, it teaches nothing,” Bighorn said.

He recommended KU implement a campus space where students in FNSA and ISP can gather in community, provide more mental health support through counselors, and allot funding for future Native American students who attend the university.

“It’s the little but big things that KU can do to prove that they really mean what they say.”

For now, Mills said she is encouraging her fellow classmates to focus on what can be done to heal.

“We got some answers to move forward in the process and know that we can’t change what happened in the past but can focus on what we need to today,” Mills said. “We know the administration is behind the Indigenous community and it feels good to know we are making progress to honor the remains and the people. Like I said, it’s about healing and moving forward, and that’s all we’re trying to do.”

Bell said ICC and FNSA will soon collaborate to provide further support to students as well as keep KU accountable.

“We will be creating space for the Native community to come together in the next few weeks and just figure out ways to make sure this process doesn’t fall through the cracks,” Bell said. “We also feel like this is a time for mass education and to remind people that Native Americans are not museum artifacts or curiosities — we are alive and well in the modern world, and we’ll make our voices and perspectives heard.”

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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