Indigenous leaders in Sandoval and Nevada face problem with human remains being stored at UNR and begin work to bring them home

For decades, Native American remains have been stored in the state’s flagship university, with only some returned to their countries of origin and little consultation with native leaders on the fate of others.

But in recent months, after a tribal member raised the issue at a Nevada Indian Commission meeting last year, the university has taken bigger steps to right the historic injustice. .

Nevada tribal leaders and community members dealt with the news of the human remains at UNR and worked with UNR officials on the issue as outrage spread across the United States and the United States. Canada on how institutions and governments have treated Indigenous communities.

Last month, Home Secretary Deb Haaland, a citizen of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo, announced a full review of federal boarding schools, and natives across the country are still responding to news that investigators have discovered hundreds of bodies in a former boarding school. schools in Canada run by the Catholic Church.

In a two-hour meeting last week, tribal chiefs and historic preservationists joined UNR President Brian Sandoval and representatives from the Department of Anthropology regarding various collections of Native American remains held at the university .

Nevada tribal leaders and UNR officials met last week to discuss repatriation efforts. Photo courtesy of Amber Torres.

“It’s been fair for a long time,” said Amber Torres, president of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, who attended the meeting. “Our people must be returned to earth in a timely manner so that they can be at peace. ”

Various summaries of the results obtained by The Nevada Independent Through a request for public records, identify bone fragments up to partial or nearly complete skeletal remains from across the state, housed primarily in the Anthropology Department’s Research Museum, as well as cultural artifacts such only moccasins and leftover baskets.

Some human remains and cultural objects were discovered by Nevadans in the 1990s and were donated to the university, while others were excavated and taken away by archaeologists who taught courses in anthropology and archeology. at UNR.

According to the summaries, the materials are placed on acid-free tissue paper in a metal drawer “for inventory and storage purposes.” Human remains are kept in polymer bags to prevent damage.

A few of the collections are labeled as “mysterious assemblage” and the summaries indicate that when they were found during the inventory protocol in 1994 and 1995, the professors at UNR had “no recollection of the unique or skeletal material ”.

While it’s not clear why the university housed human remains and cultural artifacts for decades, institutions have historically kept Native American remains for study.

Debra Moddelmog, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at UNR, said The Nevada Independent in an email Tuesday that the university has in the past worked with tribes to repatriate the human remains that belong to them, although it did not say when or how often this has happened in the 20 years or how many human remains have been returned.

“Although we have repatriated a number of ancestors and sacred objects to tribal nations, we are committed to improving the process to make it more cohesive,” Moddelmog said. “COVID has slowed down the current repatriation process, but we are now resuming that process. ”

Last week’s meeting was the most recent action taken by UNR regarding human remains. A member of the Nevada tribe first raised the issue with the Nevada Indian Commission in December 2020 during a meeting, asking the commission to intervene so that the human remains are returned to their tribes and countries. original.

On April 5, Sandoval, who became UNR president last year, said The Nevada Independent that the university was working closely with native professors on the issue, hired a national expert to investigate the campus for inventory purposes and said it was “a really sensitive issue.”

“I want to make sure that this campus is absolutely and fully compliant with all federal laws, and that we are very responsive to the concerns of the native chiefs of the tribes in the state of Nevada,” said Sandoval.

Nevada Indian Commission Executive Director Stacey Montooth first met Sandoval on April 6, also joined by Indigenous professors from UNR to start conversations about how to achieve their goal.

On May 14, Moddelmog confirmed that the university was working with the Nevada Indian Commission to repatriate human remains within the Department of Anthropology in an email to The Independent of Nevada.

But last week’s meeting marked an important point in the process, as it was the first time Sandoval had met a large group of Nevada tribal leaders in person to discuss repatriation.

Markie Wilder, UNR’s Indigenous Student Services Coordinator and member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe, who attended both meetings, said tribal leaders initially expressed shock last week when they were briefed with more details, in particular on the length of time the remains were kept in the collections of the UNR. and the few efforts to notify them.

UNR officials told tribal leaders that a letter was sent to tribal nations in Nevada in the 1990s regarding the remains, Torres said. She does not see this as a meaningful attempt to contact the tribes.

“The one letter was inadequate,” she said. “It was probably almost 25 years ago that they sent this letter and they have had these leftovers ever since.”

Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding are required to repatriate or transfer Native American cultural remains and objects. The law also recognizes that human remains or cultural objects belong to direct line descendants, tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations.

Consultation with tribes is also required by law, including the protection and planning of human remains or objects likely to be moved from federal or tribal lands, identification and declaration of all human remains and objects. in inventories or summaries of collections and notification to tribes before repatriating or transferring human remains or objects.

NAGPRA applies to museums, universities, state agencies and local governments. Failure to comply can result in criminal prosecution, civil penalties and loss of grant funding for institutions.

Next steps

According to Moddelmog, UNR will share a timeline for the repatriation process with indigenous leaders this week. The university is also looking to hire a Director of Tribal Relations and a NAGPRA Liaison and Projects Specialist to assist in its efforts to return human remains and cultural objects and to strengthen ties between the institution. and indigenous communities.

“These individuals will not only help us meet our responsibilities to federal and state laws and policies relating to Indigenous communities, but also expand our commitment to developing meaningful, long-standing and collaborative relationships with tribal nations and tribal organizations.” du Grand Bassin so that we can truly be of service to indigenous communities, ”said Moddelmog.

Earlier this year, UNR hired Cogstone Resource Management, a California-based consulting firm, to conduct a comprehensive campus search for human remains and cultural artifacts. The company specializes in paleontology, archeology and heritage protection and emergency management services, according to its website. A representative from Cogstone has yet to visit the university to investigate or report the findings.

In addition to accurately identifying the human remains and linking them to their homelands across the state, the university should also consult with the Bureau of Land Management, as some of the human remains were discovered on federal lands. , according to Moddelmog.

At last week’s meeting, the question of how to repatriate the human remains was raised, although Torres said it had not sparked much debate among tribal leaders.

“We really don’t care what this process is until our ancestors have surrendered to us so that we can put them back into the earth in a timely manner,” Torres said. “At the moment, they are disturbed. ”

Sandoval is committed to distributing information to tribal leaders once the search for human remains and cultural objects is completed and documented. Wilder said Sandoval now has a standing item on the Nevada Intertribal Council’s monthly agenda for the foreseeable future to provide repatriation updates.

The question of bringing their ancestors home from the confines of storage within the university arouses complicated emotions for Aboriginal people and leaders. Torres said she felt very angry at the start of the meeting because the university had previously lacked outreach efforts to consult with Indigenous leaders. She also said she felt disheartened that the university did not choose Nevada tribal leaders to help conduct research on campus and help identify human remains and cultural artifacts.

But the meeting’s solution-oriented approach helped her feel more upbeat towards the end.

“I felt a little calmer as we went along because we really set some things in stone about how the tribes were going to work together to make this happen because, at the end of the day, the people don’t understand that when you hold on to leftovers, or take things that aren’t yours or move them around, that bad drugs can come with that and that’s what we’re really trying to prevent them from as well. She said.

Torres also said she believes Sandoval will keep her promise.

“Because he was the former governor, he knows that tribes are business and he knows exactly how sacred our ancestors are to us, our cultures and our traditions,” she said. “So I think he will get there in due course. I see him follow through and hold his staff to account. “

Last month, Sandoval and other leaders in the state’s higher education system praised Indigenous leaders for legislation that waives fees at Nevada colleges and universities for Indigenous students. Tribal leaders expressed hope that the legislation will expand opportunities for members of their community and their ties to the university. Currently, there are 117 students at UNR who identify as Native American or Alaska Native and 405 who identify as Native and of a different race.

Jacob Solis contributed reporting for this story.

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