Just more than a year after the University of Kansas announced it was in possession of Native American human remains in its museum collections, it is unclear what progress the university has made to repatriate remains and sacred items.
Close to 200 Native American people’s remains and approximately 554 associated funerary items were found to be stored in the annex of Lippincott Hall — the building that at the time housed offices of staff members in KU’s Indigenous Studies program. Students later learned that remains were also being stored or used in research in Fraser Hall, Spooner Hall and the Natural History Museum.
After an inquiry from this publication on Sept. 20, 2022, four KU administrators released a joint statement. They said previous efforts to repatriate, or return, the items were never completed. They said the university would take action to repair harm, including complying with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) process. NAGPRA, enacted in 1990, is a federal law that sets criteria for tribal nations to reclaim ancestors’ remains and funerary objects that are held by museums.
In regard to concrete progress thus far, KU spokesperson Erinn Barcomb-Peterson has referenced the university’s Repatriation & NAGPRA webpage, which hasn’t included updates since February but has served as its central platform for communication on the issue.
The most recent update to the webpage, posted on Feb. 10, announced Thomas Torma’s hire as KU’s repatriation manager. Torma began in his role as repatriation manager at KU on March 6, charged with coordinating the university’s NAGPRA compliance. He previously worked at University of California, Berkeley as its NAGPRA liaison since 2020.
Barcomb-Peterson said via email on Sept. 19 that she would not be able to respond to questions about progress being made to repatriate the items, including if Torma would be available for an interview, until later that week. As of publication time, she had not responded to the following questions:
• Are there any updates that you’re able to provide regarding the NAGPRA process KU is participating in thus far?
• Are there any Indigenous human remains and funerary items still stored on campus, and if so, where? If they’ve been moved, where have they gone?
• What tribal nations is Torma working with?
• Is there any student involvement in the process? and
• What else would you like readers to know?
Following the news a year ago, many of KU’s Indigenous students, staff, faculty and community members were left in mourning.
Delilah Begay (Diné), a junior at KU at the time, previously said in regard to the ancestral remains, “These were people and their descendants could well be on campus.” Tweesna Rose Mills (Shoshone-Yakama-Umatilla Nations), co-chair of KU’s First Nations Student Association at the time, also said the issue reflected Native American erasure and that “Even after death, we’re still fighting for our rights to be Indian.”
D’Arlyn Bell (Cherokee Nation), a KU doctoral student at the time, added, “This is a time for mass education and to remind people that Native Americans are not museum artifacts or curiosities.”
Some students said they had to take different routes to class or avoid buildings associated with the remains altogether due to cultural beliefs that prohibit them from being near the deceased.
KU Student Senate, with the leadership of Indigenous Studies Student Association members, on Oct. 19 voted to unanimously approve a resolution supporting the needs of KU’s Indigenous communities.
Senate Resolution 2023-302 supported accountability actions, such as urging KU leadership to hold a public press conference apologizing, increasing funding for Indigenous students and more.
Repatriation and associated expenses had been included in the university’s budget, according to communication on KU’s Repatriation & NAGPRA webpage from Dec. 15, 2022. Native American Elders also cleansed specific buildings associated with the ancestral remains, and KU implemented a “procedure that allows individuals to request funds for spiritual ceremonies and associated travel, along with mental health support.”
The university also formed a NAGPRA committee, composed of administrators and museum staff.
When this publication requested an interview with Torma about four months ago, Barcomb-Peterson said he was not available for interviews. Other KU faculty members did not return requests for interviews or updates for this article.