Repatriation completed for portion of Native American ancestral remains in KU’s collections

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Post updated at 11:04 a.m. Wednesday, May 15:

Human remains belonging to at least 104 Native American ancestors and one ceremonial mask that were in the University of Kansas’ possession have been identified with tribal nations from several Kansas counties as well as Florida and Mexico.

That inventory accounts for about one-fifth of the ancestors whose remains are in KU’s museum collections being fully repatriated, or returned to their tribal nations, according to KU Repatriation Manager Thomas Torma.

Torma clarified on Wednesday morning that the approximate number of individuals represented in KU’s collection is close to 500, as opposed to the close to 200 individuals known previously. That inventory is separate from the university’s collection of associated funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony.

Torma said it’s important to note the number has not increased as a result of new discoveries but rather a result of “a careful reevaluation of the collection and partnership between the NAGPRA program and the Biodiversity Institute.” Although it hasn’t happened at KU yet, he said, new discoveries frequently occur during NAGPRA processes, so it’s likely that will be the case during KU’s.

Thomas Torma

KU’s repatriation webpage shows three notices were submitted to the national Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) office. They were published last November and December by the National Parks Service. Information about where items originated and how they ended up at KU are included.

“As is always the case with NAGPRA, the work has been challenging, but well worth it,” Torma said via email. “This is a thoughtful and deliberate process, and accomplishing our tasks with care requires time.” 

NAGPRA, enacted in 1990, is a federal law that sets criteria for tribal nations to reclaim their ancestors’ remains and funerary objects that are held by museums or other agencies.

KU administrators on Sept. 22, 2022 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.

Students, staff and faculty were left in mourning.

KU in February 2023 announced Torma’s hiring, and he began working as repatriation manager the following March. (Read more about Torma’s background in this article.)

In early October 2023, Torma said the NAGPRA process had begun. At the time, he and his team had submitted one NAGPRA notice — and another was in progress — to account for more than one-fifth of the human remains in the university’s possession. 

They’ve since made headway.

How it works

NAGPRA notices are published to the Federal Register, the official journal of the United States federal government, when an entity determines the appropriate person or group to which cultural items should be repatriated.

After publishing notices of a completed inventory, KU is required to send copies of those notices to the identified tribal nations. Torma said KU did so and that all three notices “have resulted in successful transfers of control.”

“Any one or more of the Indian Tribes or Native Hawaiian organizations identified this notice,” or “Any lineal descendant, Indian Tribe, or Native Hawaiian organization not identified in this notice who shows, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the requestor is a lineal descendant or a culturally affiliated Indian Tribe or Native Hawaiian organization” may then request repatriation, according to NAGPRA rules.

If there are multiple requests for repatriation submitted, KU must select the most appropriate one. Requests for joint repatriation are also possible and would be considered a single request.

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In regard to the remaining human remains and cultural items left to be repatriated, Torma said he and his team are currently consulting with tribal nations, but they have not yet submitted any additional notices.

Torma said notices will be posted to the university’s repatriation website, repatriation.ku.edu, soon after they’re published in the Federal Register, and that the website is updated regularly.

Items identified and repatriated

So far, KU has submitted three notices that have resulted in repatriation.

• First notice: A notice published on Nov. 15, 2023 recognizes remains belonging to, at minimum, one Native American person. 

According to the notice, a shared group identity can be “reasonably traced” between the human remains and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The remains were taken from Dixie County, Florida, and “at an unspecified date in the 1970s or 1980s, a private collector of paleontological resources donated his collection of Hemingfordian period faunal remains to the University of Kansas,” the notice says. Ultimately, the KU Biodiversity Institute, which coincides with the Natural History Museum, became in possession.

No associated funerary objects are present, the notice says.

• Second notice: A notice published on Dec. 5, 2023 recognizes remains belonging to 103 people of Native American ancestry.

According to the notice, a shared group identity can be “reasonably traced” between the human remains and the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, Oklahoma; Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Oklahoma; Delaware Tribe of Indians; Kaw Nation, Oklahoma; Nez Perce Tribe; Oglala Sioux Tribe; Omaha Tribe of Nebraska; Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Indians, Oklahoma; Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma; Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation; Sac & Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska; Sac & Fox Nation, Oklahoma; Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa; The Osage Nation; and the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes (Wichita, Keechi, Waco, & Tawakonie), Oklahoma.

The human remains were taken from Douglas, Geary, Riley, Pottawatomie, Wabaunsee, Shawnee, Jefferson, Leavenworth, Johnson and Wyandotte counties in Kansas. “Amateurs who collected paleontological resources and apparently did not recognize the remains as human” removed them from the Kaw River’s banks and gravel bars, the notice says.

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Ultimately, the KU Biodiversity Institute became in possession.

No associated funerary objects are present, the notice says.

• Third notice: A notice published on Dec. 19, 2023 recognizes one sacred object: a Pascola Mask, used by the Yaqui people during Holy Week celebrations.

According to the notice, a shared group identity can be “reasonably traced” between the Pascola Mask and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona.

Psychiatrist J. Cotter Hirschberg took the mask from Sonora, Mexico at an unknown date, the notice says. In December 1967, Hirschberg gave the mask to the museum and archives division of the Menninger Foundation, a psychiatric facility located in Topeka, Kansas at that time. The Menninger Foundation then gave it to Kansas University Museum of Anthropology (KUMA) in 1993.

KUMA closed to the public in August 2002, and the collections were renamed to the Anthropological Research and Cultural Collections (ARCC) in July 2005. In January 2007, the collection — which included the mask — was transferred from the ARCC to the KU Spencer Museum of Art.

Note: This headline and article have been updated from previous versions to reflect new information from Torma.

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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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