Indigenous Indignations: Ancestral remains withheld at the University of Kansas


Photo by Drew Windish

After this story was published, the University of Kansas released a full revamp of their repatriation plan including a focus on securing a space for the Indigenous Studies Program, continued effort in hiring a Repatriation Program Manager, and the formation of a NAGPRA committee with KU Representatives. All of this information can be found in depth at their repatriation website.

Violence and injustice committed against the Indigenous peoples, communities, and nations of the world isn’t news; no one knows this more than the Indigenous students and faculty at the University of Kansas.

On Sept. 20, the University of Kansas Provost released a written statement admitting to their collection of Indigenous ancestral remains and their intent to return the artifacts to their respective tribal nations. 

While KU publicly committed itself to return these stolen objects, the news about the possession of ancestral remains and artifacts disturbed many within the university, the United States, and of course, across Indigenous communities.

“The discovery of ancestors’ remains in the possession of the University of Kansas is deeply upsetting,” says Representative Sharice Davids, herself a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and a Haskell Indian Nations University alumni. “I am thinking of the Native community at KU and across Kansas, and I share their pain. I have spoken with KU officials about their plans to work with Tribal leaders and officers on repatriation and am hopeful this important effort continues as we work through the healing process.”

KU’s released statement does not mention the specific halls in which the remains are located, which are now known to be in Fraser Hall, Spooner Hall, the Natural History Museum, and Lippincott Hall—the latter hall housing the university’s offices of the Indigenous Studies Program (ISP). Paper signs now hang on the front entrances warning students about the remains, and the offices of ISP sit deserted. 

With the university’s announcement and the de-housing of ISP, many sit waiting for answers and updates about the ongoing situation. And while this certainly comes as a shock to Indigenous students, nations, and communities, many share exasperated grievances at the University’s silence. 

“You kind of grow up with it,” says Myltin Bighorn, member of Fort Peck’s Assiniboine & Sioux Tribal Nations and graduate student at KU.  “[KU’s Statement] was obviously shocking; it’s something you don’t want to hear. But then again, you almost tire yourself out again. Like this is going to happen again because it seems like every year something goes on.”

Just last year, protests erupted over the defacing of artist Edgar Heap of Birds’ “Native Hosts.” This artwork featured five signs that name Indigenous tribes that historically inhabited the area now called Kansas. One of the five of the artwork’s panels was stolen by what appeared to be KU students on video camera. In the end, no arrests were made, and the stolen panel was recovered. In an official statement from KU PSO Deputy Chief James Druen, the suspects said they were intoxicated and hadn’t realized the significance of the artwork. 

“From an Indigenous perspective, it’s sacred space, just like the chapel is,” Professor Sarah Deer told The Lawrence Times. “So the psychic harm of having a synagogue or a chapel damaged or vandalized—it’s very parallel, but people don’t often see that.”

Even though the suspects had not known the mural’s significance, these instances of Indigenous cultural unawareness demonstrate that even passivity can enact violence unto Indigenous communities.

While the Provost’s announcement earlier this year dismayed students and faculty who were unaware of the university’s possession of these artifacts, the announcement was not the first time that administrators were aware of the remains.

In 2005, the University of Kansas was urged by Associate Professor James Riding In at Arizona State University to return stolen items to their respective tribes, accusing them of being out of compliance with Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation (NAGPRA) protocols.

“Other universities take better care of their collections,” says Riding In, according to Lawrence Journal World. “Some universities seem eager to comply. KU seems to be reluctant.”

The university is likely to have had these ancestral remains longer than 2005, maybe as long as the university’s founding itself. Still, they were only ever legally compelled to hand over the artifacts as of 1990 under NAGPRA. 

NAGPRA was enacted by Congress Nov. 16, 1990, requiring federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return Indigenous cultural artifacts and remains to the lineal descendants that represent the artifact’s respective tribal nation. 

Under NAGPRA, it is a criminal offense to traffic Native American human remains or cultural items without the right of possession.

Even after the 30 years NAGPRA has existed, institutions across the United States are still dragging their feet in allocating resources to the safe return of Indigenous artifacts they hold. 

For instance, Aug. 3, nearly a month before the statement released by the KU Provost, the University of North Dakota announced that a team of faculty and staff too had found “sacred objects from Indigenous communities.”

Their statement can be found on their dedicated repatriation website, which includes a follow-up update posted Nov. 2—a formal apology video hosted by UND president Andrew Armacost and VP for Health Affairs Dr. Joshua Wynne, as well as some video recordings of the many meetings held to discuss their repatriation efforts on campus. 

The updates inform the public about the Repatriation Committee’s close collaboration with the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences to “bring all skeletal remains to our repatriation facility for examination by our consulting team of osteologists.”

As for the announcements made by the University of Kansas, no official update or verbal public apology has been given, save for a job opening for a Repatriation Program Manager position that can be found on ZipRecruiter—a job posting that the university has failed to fulfill by their own slated deadline of Dec. 5 at the time of this writing. 

One KU graduate student, Alicia Swimmers, contends that even upon the hiring of a Repatriation Program Manager, the task is simply too expansive and complex for even one person to handle. The expectation that one expert can handle all Indigenous cultures encroaches on pan-Indianism—the supposition that all Indigenous cultures are the same.

“I feel like they need an expert that’s familiar with Native people, but I feel like they don’t understand that Natives are all different,” says Swimmers. “We have different customs, different beliefs on death, different beliefs on hiding stuff. They almost create this false impression of Native nations: that they are untouchable. You can’t get to them. You can’t talk to them. Maybe that’s how they feel with their tribe, but in my tribe, it’s a complete open-door policy. We can go in there and ask them questions, hold them accountable, and the things that we tell them—they use their title to get justice and visibility on situations. So, whoever they hire is going to have to realize that they can’t apply their personal Native beliefs and blanket across.”

Swimmers is a member of the Lakota Nation and co-chair of the Indigenous Studies Student Association (ISSA). Earlier this year, Swimmers worked with ISSA co-chair Yamina Sfiat and KU Senate Representative Anthony Hudson to pass a student resolution to demand that the Chancellor and Provost meet the demands of Indigenous students in response to the Provost’s announcement made in September.

The resolution was passed unanimously Oct. 18 by the KU Student Senate and demanded that Chancellor Doug Girod and KU Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer “follow through with the requests and concerns stated by the Indigenous Studies department and the Indigenous communities on campus.”

In response, two listening sessions with the Provost and Vice Provost were hosted to hear student demands beyond KU Senate’s passed resolution. 

“It didn’t really feel like a listening session,” says Swimmers. “It was more like we’ll hear your comment, and then we’re gonna come back at you like we’re in court.”


Advisory signs hang outside the halls of Fraser, Lippincott, Spooner, and the Natural History Museum warning students about the building’s holding of Indigenous artifacts and ancestral remains. // Photo by Drew Windish

Some of the requests during this listening session included adequate signage on campus to inform students what buildings currently house remains and what nations represented are being withheld. It is confirmed that Indigenous nations of the South Americas and Aboriginal tribes are among those represented within the remains, but the flimsy print paper taped to the doors of Lippincott Hall currently does not elaborate as to which tribal nations the withheld artifacts belong to.

Swimmers also contends that not only are letters addressed to concerned tribal nations ready to be sent, dormant in wait for the Chancellor’s signature but that some remains were relocated from Fraser to Lippincott Hall without giving notice to those respective Indigenous tribal nations of their relocation. 

Hudson, a co-author of the KU Senate resolution, attended one of these listening sessions and remarked on a student who brought forth documentation that urged KU to repatriate their Indigenous artifacts nearly 50 years ago. While the University of Kansas was not obligated to do so by NAGPRA protocols until 1990, the issue demonstrates a trend of ignorance and silence.

“The university has known about this for years. Fifty years ago, there was a huge push in the media to get this taken care of, and all of a sudden, it died out. And I am really afraid that 50 years from now, we’re going to look back at 2022, and we’re going to see media reports that are going to mention over 200 remains on KU’s campus. And we’re going to go, ‘What happened? There’s still 200 remains here.’”

An online federal database completed back in the ‘90s estimates that KU is currently in possession of a minimum of 380 individuals, including 554 funerary artifacts. 

Another grievance listed within the KU Student Senate resolution was for the allocation of resources to dedicate an entire building to the needs of Indigenous studies and ongoing activities, similar to Native cultural centers built at the Indiana University of Bloomington, Colorado State, and Northern Arizona University. 

For now, ISP has been temporarily placed on the third floor of Snow Hall with no plan for permanent relocation. 

The University of Kansas has yet to fully accommodate and respond to the demands presented by KU Student Senate and the Indigenous community. Their inability to communicate transparent action within the repatriation process suggests stagnation within their own administration, making the complete return of these remains seemingly impossible.

“Last thing I hate to hear is, ‘wait till next year,’ and it gets swept under the rug,” says Bighorn. “It needs to be a priority—on top of the list. Everyone’s listening. Hopefully, next year—next semester—Native students, including myself, don’t have to endure or go through this again.”

But while the process of repatriation may seem like a grueling and grieving process even when done properly, a talk presented by Chief Duane Hollow Horn Bear suggests that full repatriation is necessary and attainable.

On Nov. 4, Hollow Horn Bear came to the Lied Center of Kansas to describe his own experience. When the Welkulturem Museum in Frankfort, Germany renewed their repatriation efforts last year, Hollow Horn Bear was informed that he was to receive a leather shirt that belonged to his great-grandfather Chief Daniel Hollow Horn Bear.

He explained that even though he was a Chief and Elder, he was not ready to accept the items as it was a humbling experience and a great responsibility.

“I liked that he was able to tell his personal journey through getting those artifacts back and explain the importance of these items,” says Swimmers. “Even though they’re not human remains, those things should have been buried or belonged to somebody [Indigenous]. Everything that we make in our culture is spiritually connected.”

At the time of this writing, the University of Kansas has not yet released an official statement updating the public about the ongoing situation, nor have they hosted a gathering for a verbal public apology.

Repatriation is an ongoing process that the Indigenous nations around the country are well accustomed to. It takes an effort of communication and transparency between administrators and Indigenous communities. 

“That’s the only way that this is going to be taken care of,” says Hudson. “If we seek understanding from one another and find common ground and move forward.” 

This is a developing story. If you have information you’d like to share with our journalists, please contact us.

Categories: Politics