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Tribes’ NAGPRA complaint against UMass moves forward

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. – A complaint against the University of Massachusetts Amherst, claiming violations of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is under investigation and will be heard at a Review Committee meeting in the fall.

The complaint was filed jointly by Tribal Historic Preservation Officers Cheryl Andrews-Maltais of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, Aquinnah; John Brown III of the Narragansett Indian Tribe; and Sherry White of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians in May 2008. Andrews-Maltais has since been elected chairwoman of her tribe.

Sherry Hutt, NAGPRA program director, confirmed that the complaint is under investigation.

“That matter, to my knowledge, is under investigation so I couldn’t comment on it until the investigation is completed.”

The complaint will be heard by the NAGPRA Review Committee this fall, said White, who has been coordinating documentation from the three tribes.

“We’ve been working on this for years, trying to get UMass to repatriate the remains to us. Over the years, as the three tribes started learning what was there (at UMass Amherst) and realizing we were the only federally recognized tribes that could establish cultural affiliation, the three tribes came together and put in a claim for repatriation. Our case will be reviewed in the fall.”

The complaint says that UMass Amherst has violated NAGPRA by failing to respond to the tribes’ request for repatriation of human remains from the Connecticut River Valley that are in its possession, and failing to consult with the tribes.

The joint complaint also says the university failed to publish a complete inventory of the human remains and other items of cultural patrimony in its possession, and claims the remains from the Connecticut River Valley listed in its partial inventory are “culturally unaffiliated” even while admitting that the three tribes had a historical presence in and historical ties to the area, and that they are the only federally recognized tribes with standing to claim the remains.

The tribes initiated the repatriation discussion with UMass Amherst in 2002, according to the complaint. A repatriation request for ancestors’ remains based on UMass Amherst’s partial inventory was submitted in two letters in June 2006, and included evidence establishing the tribes’ cultural affiliation and shared group identity with the ancestors’ remains.

Robert Paynter, the chair of UMass Amherst’s Anthropology Department’s Repatriation Committee responded a year later in a letter denying the repatriation request.

“Simply put, the information contained in your June 16 and 24, 2006 letters does not establish the tribes as having been identified from prehistoric or historic times to the present as descending from the peoples of the middle Connecticut River Valley, specifically the historically well-known Agawam, Woronoco, Nonotuck, Pocumtuck and/or Sokoki, as is required for a finding of cultural affiliations under (NAGPRA),” Paynter wrote.

In their renewed complaint filed last May, the tribes noted that other museums have recognized the tribes’ historic ties to the area, particularly the Springfield Science Museum which has repatriated ancestor’s remains and other items from its Connecticut River Valley collection to the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohicans. The repatriated items were found in the same area as the items the UMass Amherst has refused to repatriate.

“But not only has UMass Amherst refused our repatriation request, they actually tried to stop the Springfield Museum from repatriating its items to us,” White said.

Paynter wrote to NAGPRA in 2003 and 2004 disputing the Springfield Museum’s determination that a collection of 84 sets of human remains, 195 associated burial objects, and eight pipes from the Connecticut River Valley region of western Massachusetts were within the known homeland of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohicans.

The Springfield determination “holds the potential to impact our own institutions’ efforts to comply with NAGPRA, and how it interferes with the repatriation goals of the recognized and unrecognized tribes with whom we are consulting,” Paynter wrote.

The Narragansett Tribe is in the process of amending the complaint to add another grievance: On April 25, Paynter released the remains of eight ancestors to an unauthorized tribal member without notifying Brown, the tribe’s authorized THPO.

The remains were excavated in 1912 from the Fort Neck Burying Ground in Charlestown, R.I. where the Narragansett nation has its settlement lands. UMass has had possession of them since 1966. The university issued a notice in 2004 of its intent to repatriate the remains to the tribe.

Brown said the tribe did not take possession of the eight remains at the time because it was in the midst of the request with the Stockbridge-Munsee and Gay Head Wampanoag for repatriation of all the entire UMass collection, and was concerned that the university might claim it had complied with NAGPRA if the tribe accepted only the eight remains.

“But that didn’t give him the right to hand over the ancestors remains to an unauthorized person now. He didn’t even consult with us before turning those items over,” Brown said.

Brown said that neither Paynter nor the university president has returned his calls.

“Their unwillingness to take any telephone calls in association with this just shows me this is their modus operandi and they’re not planning on changing their ways any time soon.”

Paynter responded to an e-mail request seeking a phone interview with the following statement:

“The University of Massachusetts Amherst has worked with the Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island for a period of years to return remains to the tribe, which reflects our commitment to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Eight skeletal remains were returned to the tribe this year. I have spoken with John Brown, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, and we at the university are looking into the concerns that he has voiced.”