On Monday, Feb. 24, Nipmuc Nation Enrolled Tribal Member and Associate Director of Native American and Indigenous Studies at Brown University Rae Gould addressed members of the Vassar and Poughkeepsie communities in Rockefeller Hall 200. Overflowing the seats of the lecture hall, the large audience gathered to hear Gould explain the application of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) at institutions around the United States.
Associate Professor of Anthropology April Beisaw prefaced her introduction of Gould with a reference to the events of two weeks ago, when President Elizabeth Bradley announced that Native Alaskan remains and artifacts first excavated in the 1980s by Professor Emerita of Anthropology Lucille Johnson had been discovered by members of the Anthropology Department. Beisaw somberly remarked, “Thank you for showing that Vassar cares about its Indigenous community.”
Gould began by thanking Beisaw, President Bradley and the administration, and expressed that the lecture came at a difficult time in the College’s institutional history. She continued with a land acknowledgement of the Delaware, Delaware Lenape and Stockbridge-Munsee tribes, emphasizing the importance of thinking about the peoples that inhabited the space as opposed to just the land.
After studying art history and anthropology, Gould became a NAGPRA representative for her tribe since she was the only member with archaeological training. She originally envisioned herself working in a museum, and noted, “I always say this work chooses us. I would never have chosen the work to sit with people’s remains and rearticulate them so they can go back to their families.”
Though enrolled in the Nipmuc tribe, Gould shared how she traces her ancestry to four different tribes and concluded that homeland is tied to the people connected to the land. “I’m pointing this out because I’m talking about kinship,” she explained. Kinship is the thread that binds tribes together and distinguishes Indigenous concepts of relationships from Western genealogies. This statement relates to the motivation behind NAGPRA: to facilitate respectful return, to bring ancestors home.
Passed by Congress in 1990, NAGPRA is a federal law dictating that institutions receiving public funds cannot be in possession of Native American and Native Hawaiian human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony. It also contains provisions for the repatriation of items to the tribe of cultural origin and provides a process for determining the appropriate lineal descendants of the object’s original owners.
Herein lie various critiques of the law from Indigenous perspectives. First, the law does not extend to private entities that do not use public funds, such as the art market. Second, the law defines items of cultural patrimony as objects that have ongoing historical, traditional or cultural importance central to the Native American group. Gould cited pipes, pipe bags and even rosary beads from Christianized tribes as various examples of cultural ceremonial objects. These items exemplify how traditions evolve over generations, making it difficult to define all items of cultural patrimony. Third, NAGPRA rendered invalid instances where tribes signed over items of cultural patrimony to institutions. Prior to NAGPRA, institutions often amassed cultural artifacts that were never accounted for, and various institutions participating in “physical anthropology” specifically sought human remains to study. As a result, various institutions have vaults in which thousands of ancestors lie cataloged and neglected.
The first step in having items processed under the law is sorting through the collections. Second, the institution must consult Indigenous tribes or Native Hawaiian Organizations to determine the object’s cultural affiliation.
The third step is to publish the findings in the Federal Register. Finally, the item would be repatriated to the specific tribe or organization. However, in cases where the institution cannot determine the tribe or lineal descendants, or if no present-day tribe can be determined, items are rendered Culturally Unidentifiable (CUI). Current tribes that are not federally recognized, such as the Nipmuc tribe, would thus lose claim to cultural items.
These examples led to the final facet of the presentation: institutional will. Gould explained that there are often no resources allocated for NAGPRA compliance, as the process often takes years or decades. Furthermore, tribes often do not always possess the resources to investigate, consult and seek repatriation from across the country. If the will is present, Gould stated that there would be a level of trust between the institution and tribe being consulted, as the latter generally prefers to maintain CUI status and ensure that another tribe’s objects are not being claimed as their own. Institutions should act as stewards of the items rather than owners. She cited Harvard Peabody and Yale Peabody as practitioners of retentive philosophy, who purposefully render collections CUI to avoid the final step of repatriating the artifacts to the tribes.
Gould ended the presentation with ways members of the community can encourage a sense of institutional will to allow for repatriation in the long-term. One method is to allow resistant members of the institution to leave and to be replaced; another is to organize and push for a more active response from the institution. Likewise, Gould beseeched students not to become complicit in the ivory-tower mentality, which hinders students from learning about Indigenous history in the area. She shared how she encourages her own students to develop proposals related to their area of study, from marine biology to political science, that would benefit local tribes in some way.
In the question-and-response segment, attendees inquired about issues such as federal penalties, attempts to extend the law to institutions that do not take federal funds and possible reparations. Gould and Beisaw both responded that though federal penalties are rare, they are possible; that a current law that would extend NAGPRA has been stuck in Congress since 2016; and that NAGPRA is the bottom line when it comes to repatriation. Tribes can publicize issues, but they require public support. Toward the end, one woman cited a 1990 article in which Johnson’s work in Alaska with a colleague from the University of Connecticut was extensively described. Beisaw noted that the article was published several months before Congress enacted NAGPRA. Likewise, after the death of Johnson’s colleague, collections from the University of Connecticut were dispersed among various institutions.
Gould’s presentation placed Vassar’s compliance with the law and with the affected tribes into context. Beisaw and Gould alike implored attendees not to simply let this become a bygone issue, but to critically engage with local Indigenous communities and ensure that Vassar’s will to repatriate only grows stronger.