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Why are Native remains at the University of Minnesota and not their respective tribes?

A 1990 law mandates Native American remains and funerary objects be returned to tribes, but the University of Minnesota still has hundreds of artifacts.

Lloyd Wilford, John Clark, and Albert Jenks, members of the 1929 Mimbres Valley, New Mexico, excavation, lift out a large "olla."
Lloyd Wilford, John Clark, and Albert Jenks, members of the 1929 Mimbres Valley, New Mexico, excavation, lift out a large "olla."
Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library

WASHINGTON — The first time Albert Jenks, the founder of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Anthropology, took students to New Mexico to excavate Native American remains and funerary objects was in 1928.

Several years later, at digs in two New Mexico counties, Jenks and his students had collected hundreds of bones and thousands of funerary objects buried with those bones, including ceramic pots, jade and turquois pendants, copper bells and beads.

Although a decades-old federal law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), mandates the return of these items to the tribes whose ancestor’s graves were ransacked, many remain locked up at the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum, where they were on display as recently as 2019.

The university says it is working to return those funerary objects to several southwest tribes, including the Hopi, Pueblo, Mescalero Apaches and Zunis. Decades ago, the school transferred all the skeletal remains it had in its possession to the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC), the state agency tasked with repatriating Native American remains.

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But the remains and/or funerary and cultural objects of tens of thousands of Native American ancestors are still at the Weisman Art Museum and other museums across the nation in part because repatriation requires a tribe to claim cultural affiliation, which is sometimes difficult because often tribes don’t know their ancestor’s remains are at a university or museum. Repatriation has also been slow because institutions in possession of those objects are loathe to part with them.

For instance, the indigenous artifacts were transferred from the University of Minnesota’s anthropology department to the Weisman Art Museum in 1992.

“Rather than cooperate with MIAC on NAGPRA compliance, the museum instead filed its own summary, which neither identified any items as burial-associated nor mentioned their association with the ancestors at MIAC,” said a report by the Truth Project, which probes the history of relations between tribal nations and the University of Minnesota. “While MIAC appropriately engaged in Tribal (sic) consultations and filed its own inventory in 2002, the WAM director refused to collaborate, and the museum failed to respond adequately to Tribal (sic) inquiries regarding the collection, as required by NAGPRA.”

Some of the artifacts dug up by Jenks and his students were disbursed to participating institutions that helped in the expeditions, including the Santa Fe Museum. Some of the objects Jenks supplied the University of Minnesota were also subsequently disbursed to other museums, including the Science Museum in Minnesota, the Milwaukee Public Museum and the Boulder Art Museum.

And Jenks was not the only University of Minnesota academic who dug up Native American graves and gave the school what they had found. In 1930, university archeologist Lloyd Wilford and his students also disinterred the remains of 21 individuals, along with 378 funerary objects at a site in Catron County, New Mexico. The National Park Service said the Weisman Art Museum is still looking for 14 missing items, which it says are pottery vessels.

Clifford Huntley, nephew of Dr. A. E. Jenks, excavating mimbres bowls in New Mexico in 1931.
Hennepin County Library
Clifford Huntley, nephew of Dr. Albert Jenks, excavating mimbres bowls in New Mexico in 1931.
Last November, the University of Minnesota invited representatives from the Hopi, Zuni and Pueblo tribes view the funerary objects where they are stored at the Weisman Museum.

“There was an agreement (with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council) that the objects will remain in Weisman because it has climate control,” said Susannah Schouweiler, communications director for the Weisman Art Museum.

The tribal representatives also viewed the remains of their ancestors where they are being stored in an osteology lab in St. Paul’s Hamline University by the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. Schouweiler said the viewings of both the remains and funerary objects were emotional.

“They don’t distinguish between the objects and the remains,” Schouweiler said. “They are all part of the ancestor.”

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Schouweiler said she could not explain why the university’s museum still has hundreds of funerary objects that belong to Native tribes, and why they were on display – something the tribes consider a desecration – as recently as a few years ago.

“I don’t have an answer to that question,” she said. Schouweiler noted that the museum has had a change in leadership, and its current administrators and board members are eager to make things right.

There is no timeline, however, for the repatriation of the university’s cache of funerary objects.

“This is a process that could take a long time…and not because we’re dragging our feet,” Schouweiler said.

The problem, she said, is that the tribes “are not ready” to accept the items.

The Hopi, Pueblo and other tribes did not return calls seeking comment.

‘The scale of this is enormous’

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act provides a process for museums that receive federal funds to repatriate certain Native American cultural items – including human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony – to lineal descendants and to Indian tribes. Before NAGPRA was approved a state law implemented in the late 1970s mandated such repatriations.

“For the better part of the last century, there were no legal protections for (Native) burials,” said Dylan Goetsch a cultural resource field investigator for the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC), a state agency whose board is comprised of tribal leaders.

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Goetsch, whose mother belongs to the Dakota tribe, said MIAC has repatriated some 2,000 to 3,000 Indian remains, mostly to tribes that live in Minnesota.

But MIAC still has remains that belong to local tribes, including those of two individuals who were dug up in 1900 at the Leaping Rock Site in Pipestone County. One of those individuals is believed to be the son of a Dakota (Sioux) chief who was killed in 1834 attempting to from a cliff about 12 feet above onto Leaping Rock. According to the National Park Service, warriors attempting to prove their bravery jumped from the cliff onto the rock and jammed an arrow into one of its cracks.

Another set of remains were found in 2014 from a sandbar on the Blue Earth River by a canoeist. MIAC also has remains found on a farm in Grant County in the early 1960s, as well as remains found in the fall of 2021 during a water main replacement in Minnetonka.

Meanwhile, the demolition of a home in Hennepin County in 2017 resulted in unearthing the remains of at least eight individuals. And there are many other remains found by accident or through the desecration of known burial grounds throughout the state that have made their way to MIAC.

Goetsch said MIAC’s pace on repatriations is based on several things, including the agency’s funding and the ability of tribes to take possession of remains and funerary artifacts.

“Every couple of years, we have ancestors ready to go home,” he said.

Goetsch also said that the phenomenon of Indian grave desecrations had been massively underestimated.

“The scale of this is enormous,” he said.