KU forms committee to repatriate Indigenous ancestors, shares other efforts in progress

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The University of Kansas has created a committee to administer the repatriation of Indigenous remains in its possession and is working to reconcile with KU’s Indigenous communities, according to a campus update.

In an email sent Thursday afternoon to students, faculty and staff, the university outlines updates on returning the remains of 202 Native American ancestors, one South American ancestor and one Aboriginal ancestor. The university announced in September that a staff member had discovered the remains in museum collections. The repatriation process is done to comply with the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA).

The committee of administrators, faculty and museum staff will “complete necessary steps of repatriation of Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony that are in the institution’s possession, as mandated by federal law,” the update stated. “The committee’s charge is to advise, guide and complete NAGPRA protocols while prioritizing tribal consultation.”

The joint email was sent on behalf of Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Barbara A. Bichelmeyer; Director of Tribal Relations Melissa Peterson, Diné; and Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Nicole Hodges Persley. The same information in the email was also uploaded to the university’s repatriation website.

Students have not been asked to be part of the committee, as far as Indigenous Studies Program student Yamina Sfiat said she knows, but she said Indigenous student group leaders have met with Bichelmeyer. KU’s update said “initial meetings” between students and the Provost have happened and “engagement will continue.”

“I was not aware of any students involved in the NAGPRA Committee, nor have me or other students that I know of been reached out to for that,” Sfiat said. “The only thing that has happened was the DEI meeting that included some students but mostly faculty in discussing steps on how the university can better support Indigenous peoples on campus.”

Committee members, as listed on the website, include Bichelmeyer, Peterson, Hodges Persley, and the following:
Joseph Brewer, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, director of Indigenous studies and assistant professor;
John Curran, vice chancellor and chief risk officer;
Kim Grunewald, deputy general counsel;
Jill Hummels, chief of staff and director of Internal Communications;
Addison Keegan-Harris, director of strategic initiatives for DEIB;
Kara Kelly, collection manager at Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum;
Cara Nossaman, director of Strategic Initiatives for Analytics Institutional Resources and Effectiveness;
Sydney Pursel, Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, curator of public practice at Spencer Museum of Art; and
Angela Watts, collection manager at Spencer Museum of Art.

Support for Indigenous students, staff and faculty

Community support efforts will be led by Hodges Persley and the DEIB team, according to KU’s update. They are tasked with addressing “concerns raised by and in support of the Native American and Indigenous communities and the Indigenous Studies Program” as well as offering “support to those affected by KU’s discovery of ancestral remains and its previously incomplete NAGPRA process.”

That support will include several initiatives, according to the update.

When the remains were first found to be in the university’s possession on campus, some Indigenous students shared they were unable to enter or be in the vicinity of buildings associated with the remains due to cultural and spiritual beliefs that prohibit them from being around the deceased. The update said Native American elders have since cleansed specific buildings where ancestors are located.

Additionally, through a new procedure, KU community members can fill out a form to request financial support for spiritual ceremonies and associated travel as well as for mental health resources. The form can be accessed at this link.

Since the Indigenous remains were initially found stored in Lippincott Hall — which is where the Indigenous Studies Program was housed — students and staff were relocated to Snow Hall, but Indigenous Studies Program students have advocated for a more sufficient space. According to the update, “Facilities, Planning, and Development are in the process of updating the space to better meet the Indigenous Studies Program’s needs.”

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Funding for the repatriation process and community support has been incorporated into the university’s budget, according to the update, though it does not list a specific amount.

Several ISP students in September hand-delivered an open letter to KU administrators seeking a full explanation as to why ancestral remains were stored in the same space as ISP without their knowledge, warning signs on buildings associated with the remains, a press conference to apologize and more. Signs were posted on some campus buildings in October.

KU Student Senate passed a resolution on Oct. 19 that outlines support needed for Indigenous students. The final resolution, which was sent to the KU administration, can be read at this link.

Additional efforts in line with NAGPRA

The university is still in the search for a repatriation program manager, who will oversee the NAGPRA process. The original target start date was Dec. 5, but the position has yet to be filled.

“The position for a repatriation program manager is open and will remain open until a qualified pool of candidates has been identified,” KU spokesperson Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said via email last week. “The needs of Native Nations and of our Native students, staff and faculty are at the center of the repatriation process, and their needs are guiding our updates on the process.”

The KU community will have a chance to engage with the finalist candidates during on-campus interviews in January, according to the update.

The university is also auditing its existing museum collections to provide accurate information of its inventory, according to the update. The Natural History Museum and Spencer Museum have partnered with the Office of Audit, Risk & Compliance to expand the auditing process across the Lawrence campus.

“Following appropriate protocols, the audit begins within the institution and will ultimately be completed through tribal consultation,” the update said.

Those who may have helpful information to the audit are encouraged to email repatriation@ku.edu, or use the University Hotline to report anonymously.

The Office of Audit, Risk & Compliance is also working on a universitywide policy regarding repatriation.

Read past communications and keep up with future updates from the university at repatriation.ku.edu.

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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 forms committee to repatriate Indigenous ancestors, shares other efforts in progress

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KU has created a committee to administer the repatriation of Indigenous remains in its possession and is working to reconcile with the university’s Indigenous communities, according to a campus update.

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