Members of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe could uncover valuable information about the population’s health and other historical trends through the study of ancestral remains returned to the tribe.
The federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed in 1990, requires federal agencies like museums to inventory and turn over Native American remains to the tribal groups they belong to.
The law has been instrumental in the return of Dena’ina remains and cultural artifacts over the years, including the most recent repatriation of remains representing eight individuals in 2013.
After weighing its options, the tribe is now putting those remains through DNA testing in the hope of revealing information that can help them address health issues going forward, said Alexandra “Sasha” Lindgren, the tribe’s former Director of Tribal Government Affairs.
“We have high incidents of arthritis, we have high incidents of diabetes,” Lindgren said. “What makes us predisposed to diabetes? What makes us predisposed to arthritis? Those are major, major issues.”
Lindgren, who has been involved in the tribe’s NAGPRA efforts since the law’s inception, said the tribe has had a generally positive experience navigating the law to get pieces of its history returned. The most recently returned remains were discovered in the 1980s and 90s in multiple locations around the Kenai Peninsula, according to an article published in the tribe’s newspaper.
The decision to subject remains to scientific study is not made lightly, Lindgren said. The Kenaitze Indian Tribe has long relied on the advice and consultation of Alan Boraas, an anthropologist and professor at the Kenai Peninsula College who has worked with the tribe since the 1970s.
When the 2013 remains were repatriated, Boraas approached tribal members with an overview of what could be found through DNA study, how the study would be conducted, and more. Lindgren said tribal elders decided at the time that reasonable scientific study would be beneficial.
“They did it out of respect for the past, and care and concern for the future,” Lindgren said.
Boraas said making sure remains are respected during repatriation or study is of utmost importance. If members of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe decided they did not want their ancestors to be studied, there would be no attempts to do so, he said.
“This is a sort of a case-by-case issue,” Boraas said. “It’s a marriage of research with tribal interests. That’s the bottom line: is the tribe interested in doing this type of work?”
The Kenaitze Indian Tribe has a well-established protocol when it comes to navigating NAGPRA, in part because Lindgren and others took it upon themselves to interview more than 35 elders when the law first passed in order to set up definitions and standards for compliance, Lindgren said. Now, when remains affiliated with the Dena’ina people come to light, the tribe already knows how it will proceed in terms of repatriation, she said.
“It’s just been a tremendous opportunity for the tribe to build partnerships,” Lindgren said.
NAGPRA dictates that the tribe work closely with museums housing remains, the Alaska Bureau of Land Management, the state Office of History and Archaeology, the National Park Service and others. One reason the law has been so instrumental in returning remains and objects to their rightful owners is that it gives more authority to the oral and written histories of Alaska Native and Native American groups than was given in the past, putting tribes on a more equal playing field with anthropologists.
“To see the federal government give weight and authority to that transmission of knowledge is empowering,” Lindgren said. “Those objects were not created to be in museums.”
Not all tribes have the same experience with NAGPRA. The law only applies to federally recognized tribes, and the application process for repatriation can be lengthy and expensive. The Kenaitze Indian Tribe operates through grants applied for through NAGPRA, and has combined forces with tribal nonprofits and corporations and works with them to repatriate remains on behalf of multiple tribal entities.
For tribes without grants or a thorough understanding of the repatriation process, having ancestral remains returned can be more difficult.
To address these issues, the University of Alaska Museum of the North hosted a NAGPRA workshop on Sept. 3 in Fairbanks. Scott Shirar is the archaeology collection manager for the museum, and said that while the workshop was well attended by anthropologists, he had hoped for more community interest.
The workshop was made possible by funding from a NAGPRA grant for museum personnel to invest in training and education. Shirar said the museum had originally applied for a grant that would have provided funds for museum personnel to travel and consult with rural tribal villages about objects that still need to be repatriated. Once the museum publishes a notice of completed inventory, the ball is in the affiliated tribe’s court to reach out and make a claim for those items, Shirar said.
“They’re probably the most important player in terms of repatriating these objects.” Shirar said. “A lot of times it can be financial. We’re talking about rural villages, and they’re just dealing with so many other issues on a day to day basis.”
Some tribes have employees dedicated to navigating NAGPRA, while others may employ a person who juggles NAGPRA compliance along with several other important duties, Shirar said.
Lindgren said applying for NAGPRA grants is currently the best thing agencies can do to improve their consultation with rural tribes. Shirar said there could be another NAGPRA workshop in November, this time in Anchorage.
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