Indian tribes given bones for reburial

September 25, 1998

When the University of Nebraska agreed to return remains it held of more than 1,700 American Indians to 15 tribes, the move received widespread public support. After all, the university had been forced to admit that it had handled the remains with little regard for the native peoples' cultural beliefs.

But the backing of the historic agreement was partly due to the fact that dozens of other United States universities were also beginning to return their Indian remains, the first tangible results of an eight-year-old repatriation law.

"I want to apologise personally and on behalf of the university for the insensitive and grievous treatment of the physical remains of Native Americans done in past decades in the name of science," Nebraska chancellor James Moeser told a tribal meeting on campus.

The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires Nebraska to return such bones and relics to the appropriate Indian tribes or risk federal fines.

Making an inventory of the items has taken years, however, and the results are only now becoming visible.

The National Park Service, which oversees the law, says agreements have been reached to repatriate the remains of 10,898 individuals and more than 300,000 other objects, but it estimates that universities, colleges, museums and other institutions hold the remains of a total of 200,000 individuals.

While accepted by most of academia, support for the law is not unanimous. Anthropologists in Washington State, for example, have sued to prevent the reburial of a 9,300-year-old skeleton they believe dates from the first human colonisation of the Americas. Indian groups have used the repatriation law to block further scientific study of the remains.

The scientists contend the regulation covers only native Americans associated with known tribes, and the skull of the disputed remains has traits that more closely resembles European than American Indian physiology. Without the right to study it and other remains, they say, research on early Americans will come to an end.

But many archaeologists and anthropologists have reached agreements with tribes allowing newly discovered remains to be studied before being reburied.

The law requires universities, colleges and other institutions to notify tribes of remains they have.

Since the exact tribal affiliations of the remains held by the University of Nebraska could not be determined, all were to be re-interred on lands of the nearby Omaha tribe.

"The unaffiliated remains all come from Mother Earth," said Allen Hare, of the Sioux tribe. "They should be returned to nourish the soil, bring food to people."

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