Texas A&M University has received a grant as part of a $1.64 million National Park Service effort to return ancestral remains and sacred objects to Native American tribes and organizations.
"This is an opportunity to engage in good-faith collaboration and proactive engagement with Native American groups and tribes," said Heather Thakar, the project's director. Thakar is an assistant professor of archaeology and the curator of the Anthropology Research Collections.
"The ultimate goal is to facilitate consultation that increases successful repatriation to Native American groups," Thakar said.
Thakar said the $88,993 grant funds, which A&M received Friday, will go toward the hiring of an expert in human archaeology to assist with work that will include digitizing past archaeological findings, analyzing objects and communicating with a variety of Native American contacts.
Enacted in 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires museums and federal agencies to inventory and identify Native American human remains and cultural items in their collections, and to consult with Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations regarding repatriation.
"This is about the right to claim your ancestors. That law was really about setting right some of the things archaeologists and others did in the past," Thakar said of NAGPRA. "The ultimate goal is to facilitate consultation that increases successful repatriation to Native American groups."
The 16 repatriation grants will fund transportation and reburial of 243 ancestors and 2,268 cultural items. The University of Oklahoma, the State Historical Society of Colorado and the University of Missouri system were among the other grant recipients.
"Through these grants, the National Park Service works with tribes, museums, and partners to facilitate the return of sacred objects and ancestral remains to native peoples," said National Park Service Deputy Director P. Daniel Smith.
Indian tribes and museums in Oklahoma will receive more than $450,000 in funding. Among those is the Caddo Tribe, which received $67,466. The Caddo are one of the indigenous communities that have representation on the A&M project's advisory board. The advisory council will work with A&M personnel to evaluate claims sent in by native communities and tribes.
"We submitted the grant proposal along with specific Native American communities. I didn't think that I as curator should be the one making those decisions -- it should not be a one-person decision," Thakar said.
Thakar said that many institutions, A&M included, have taken a long time to meet NAGPRA standards.
"It's a long process that includes inventorying and documenting what we have, including human remains and the items placed next to or near them at the time of burial," she said.
She said correctly identifying human ancestral remains and objects can require lengthy investigation, including ethnographic and aboriginal territory exploration. It's best, she said, if the process of identifying remains and sacred objects is a collaborative one.
"I want to be able to send groups digital files and show them what I have when a claim is made," she said.
She also cited a history of tension between archaeologists and indigenous groups, and said a shift had occurred recently in her field toward supporting those seeking to reclaim items from, and aspects of, their culture and history.
"Even the most scientific of us -- and I try to be that -- should realize just because you can take something doesn't mean you should," Thakar said.
Thakar pointed to a high-profile case study of these tensions that played out over time in Washington state. In 1996, six years after NAGPRA was enacted, two college students came across a human skull while wading in the Columbia River. They thought they'd found a murder victim and flagged down a nearby cop, who called in a local expert. Instead, they had discovered some of the oldest human remains ever dug up in North America, according to a 2016 article from NPR.
Archaeologists dubbed the skeleton Kennewick Man, after the place where he was found, while a group of Native American tribes called him The Ancient One -- and a direct tribal ancestor. A fierce, two-decade debate ensued over whether he was of Asian, European or Native American origin and if he should be studied or given an ancestral burial.
In 2016, according to the Associated Press, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declared that Kennewick Man was related to modern Native Americans, and five tribes received the remains of The Ancient One in 2017 for burial.
Thakar said the case showed what can go wrong between scientists and indigenous populations, but she expressed optimism that the NPS grants would help graduate students and others in the field engage with native and indigenous communities.
"We want to see the ultimate disposition of the remains. There is a path forward," she said.
The full name of A&M's project is the Preparation for Meaningful Consultation through Documentation & Inventory of New Discoveries and Collaboration with Tribal Partners.
"We're so different from Indiana Jones and that is so far from our discipline today," Thakar said. "Opportunities like this give us a chance to build new relationships and do things differently than how they were done before."