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KU Indigenous Studies students call for action after ancestral remains discovered in campus museum collections

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Several University of Kansas students in the Indigenous Studies Program (ISP) this week hand-delivered an open letter to KU administrators, stating their frustrations with the university’s handling of Native American human remains in its possession.

In addition to more than 200 unidentified Native American individuals’ remains and associated funerary items, the remains of one Aboriginal ancestor were discovered as well. They were found to be stored in Lippincott Hall, which is where the ISP offices were housed, and other campus buildings.

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KU has a responsibility to follow the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a federal law that sets criteria for tribal nations to reclaim ancestors’ remains and funerary objects that are held by museums.

Many of those on campus who spent time in the building have been distressed by the news, especially Indigenous students, staff and faculty in the ISP.

Yamina Sfiat, a graduate student in the ISP, said students have formed the Indigenous Studies Student Association (ISSA) to voice their concerns and stay on top of the repatriation process. ISSA so far consists of approximately 15 students who worked together last week to draft the letter.

“As a cohort, some returning but many of us new, we thought it best to express our concerns outwardly in order to maintain KU’s accountability for their actions,” the letter reads.

“We stand in solidarity with our faculty as our collective learning has been entirely disrupted, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. While we recognize that the current administration and Spencer Museum are open to working with us, there is much the administration needs to answer for.”

Some students have said they have had to change their walking routes to avoid buildings, or refrain from entering buildings associated with the remains due to cultural beliefs that prohibit them from being around the deceased.

The letter, addressed to Chancellor Douglas Girod and Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer, includes a list of recommendations the students say KU should adopt to improve relations with the Native American community forward.

Some recommendations ask KU to provide a full explanation as to why ancestral remains were stored in the same space as ISP without their knowledge; immediately post warning signs on buildings associated with the remains; and hold a press conference to apologize.

ISP-Open-Letter

While hand-delivering letters across campus to various departments across campus, Sfiat said the group had conversations with leaders at the Natural History Museum and Spencer Museum of Art, as well as a brief conversation with those at the Office of Multicultural Affairs. Sfiat said group members expressed to the Biodiversity Institute & Natural History Museum that they would like to see students involved in the repatriation process itself, and she said the Spencer Museum may be interested in holding monthly conversations with ISSA.

The group has made it known they would like to have face-to-face conversations with administrators, Sfiat said, but she’s not sure if or when that will happen. As of Friday morning, they had not heard from the Office of the Chancellor nor the Office of the Provost about when they might be able to schedule meetings, Sfiat said.

KU spokesperson Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said via email, “We appreciate the input from our students in the Indigenous Studies Program and look forward to continuing the conversation as this process moves forward.”

The university has also launched a page on its website where the university plans to share updates, administrators announced last week.

ISSA is still in its infancy, and students are going through the process of making it an official student organization on campus, but Sfiat and another ISP student, Alicia Swimmer, are the unofficial co-chairs. Sfiat emphasized that though the group was created to address the issue at hand, members will continue to challenge KU’s relations with all Indigenous students moving forward.

“It’s about holding KU accountable and creating a space for Indigenous students who are not just Native. I mean the Indigenous studies program itself is meant to be a globally Indigenous program,” Sfiat said. “I do want to emphasize that we’re not exclusive in any shape or form [and] that we really just want the community to come together and to address these issues and to just respect Indigenous peoples entirely.”

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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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KU Indigenous Studies students call for action after ancestral remains discovered in campus museum collections

Share this post or save for later

Several students in KU’s Indigenous Studies Program this week hand-delivered an open letter to administrators, stating their frustrations with the university’s handling of Native American human remains in its possession.

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