Repatriation of Native American people’s remains is in progress, KU official says

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More than one-fifth of the human remains of Native American ancestors that are in KU’s possession will soon be returned to their rightful tribal nations, the university’s repatriation manager says.

Thomas Torma said he and his team have submitted one notice to the national Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) office, and they are finalizing another notice that’s estimated to be submitted in the next few weeks. Those will result in the repatriation of more than a fifth of the human remains in the university’s museum collections, he said.

“The best solution for everybody is just to get these people home, and start building something better,” Torma said.

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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.

A little more than a year ago, four KU administrators announced the university was in possession of the remains of close to 200 Native American ancestors and 554 associated funerary items. They were initially found in Lippincott Hall, which at the time housed KU’s Indigenous Studies Program offices, and later were found to also be stored in Fraser Hall, Spooner Hall and the Natural History Museum.

KU on Feb. 10 announced Torma’s hiring, and he began working as repatriation manager on March 6. Torma said he was attracted to KU’s foundation and that he could continue pushing it in the right direction.

“I was pretty impressed with the KU program,” Torma said. “I think that the university is really dedicated towards trying to move this back to right — I don’t think you ever fully get it back to right, but you do it as much as you can — and working with the tribes to develop real collaboration and real partnership.”

Tom Torma: From UC Berkeley to KU

Before KU, Torma worked as the NAGPRA liaison at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) from 2020-22. Prior to that, he worked for around four years as the cultural director and tribal historic preservation officer for the Wiyot Tribe in Loleta, California.

He also taught and lectured at universities around the country, such as Little Big Horn College and the University of Montana, as well as in the United Kingdom. He earned a bachelor of science in English and philosophy from State University of New York-Brockport, and a master of science and doctorate in Celtic studies from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Thomas Torma

Torma got his job with the Wiyot Tribe because he had experience working on a reservation. He also had a background in archaeology and some legal knowledge. When the community was able to gain back possession of their ancestors or cultural items, Torma said he witnessed community healing in return. Understanding that inspired him to dig further into repatriation.

“It very quickly became a very interesting and rewarding part of the work,” Torma said.

UC Berkeley was the first university Torma helped to progress. There he was responsible for publishing 15 NAGPRA notices — required documentation — to repatriate more than 900 individuals’ remains.

An article in ProPublica’s “The Repatriation Project” series delves into UC Berkeley’s dark past and its long overdue repatriation process. It specifically highlights one of the university’s professors and his usage — and fight to maintain usage — of Native American ancestral remains for years in his anthropology classes. That came to light in 2020.

Torma said he never worked directly with the professor during his time at UC Berkeley except for one meeting with him, and he couldn’t speak to additional programming the university implemented to start repairing harm. His focus was on repatriation, and he had his work cut out for him. 

“I’m proud of that work,” Torma said.

Torma said he isn’t sure where progress at UC Berkeley stands since he left, but he does not believe the items have been fully repatriated yet.

More about KU’s repatriation progress

Torma said he wouldn’t be surprised if the initial number of human remains and sacred items belonging to Native American people that KU estimated it had increases as the process goes on. As most universities that are complying with NAGPRA have found, he said, more items tend to be discovered in other places on campus; however, he hasn’t found that to be the case at KU yet.

Identifying funerary items and objects of cultural patrimony, or objects that hold ongoing meaning to a Native American community or culture, aren’t as clear without additional input. During consultations, tribal leaders involved in the process will be able to determine the significance of items and how they’d like to proceed. Part of Torma’s role is making sure tribal nations stay well informed throughout.

Torma said he and his team are just now starting the consultation process, which can take a while.

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Which tribal nations Torma is working with and many details about the process with them are confidential. Whether protected under NAGPRA rules, such as information related to archeological investigations under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, or culturally sensitive, Torma said not sharing details is “best practice.”

“We’re working with sovereign bodies, and they are sharing their cultural information,” he said. “It’s not our information to share and so we don’t. And that’s part of the overall process of not allowing research on those items without tribal permission, not allowing any of that kind of stuff to go on because, really, this is a tribal-led process. And we’re gonna respect that.”

University representatives sitting on the NAGPRA Committee are assisting Torma in his efforts. 

No students are included in the committee, but Torma said that’s because consultations are meant to take place between the university and sovereign nation representatives. It also helps to keep decision-making with representatives at the table simple, he added. However, Torma said he foresees student leadership in the future and his team currently has some interns working on nonconfidential aspects of the work.

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Students in Indigenous-centered organizations at KU last year led work to get a Student Senate resolution passed, pushing for ongoing accountability. 

Some students last year expressed they were having to change their walking routes or avoid entering campus buildings associated with the remains altogether due to cultural beliefs that prohibit them from being near the deceased. KU eventually installed signs on the outside of those buildings to advise people ahead of entering.

Though Torma would not specify whether remains or cultural items are currently still stored in the same campus buildings or where they are now, he said “public events are not being held in those spaces.”

Chloe Anderson/Lawrence Times A sign on the door of Spooner Hall advises those who approach that the building houses remains of Native American ancestors, Oct. 13, 2022.

KU spokesperson Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said signs are not currently posted on campus and that the university does not have plans to reinstall them.

“The temporary signs that were placed last fall have been removed in the interest of ensuring that such notification complies with both Tribal wishes and with NAGPRA protocols,” Barcomb-Peterson said via email.

The entire repatriation process will be slow, and Torma said he’s unable to estimate the end date, but he said KU is on a positive path toward healing.

Beyond fully repatriating these items, KU will have an ongoing repatriation program that includes a collaboration between its museums and libraries to make accessing archival and data records user-friendly for tribal nations, create an ongoing NAGPRA compliance policy and tap into international repatriation research and work, Torma said.

“I’m really excited about being at a university that’s prioritizing its relationships to tribes and is really working to build good relations with both the tribes that have reservations here in Kansas or that have historical ties to Kansas or wherever,” Torma said. “And I think we’re building something good. It’s our intention to repatriate all the eligible items in a timely and appropriate fashion.”

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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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