Repatriation Conference 2019

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This was the second year I participated in the Association on American Indian Affairs annual repatriation conference. The Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation hosted the conference at their hotel and casino complex just north of Phoenix, Arizona. Healing the Divide was the theme—with a focus on mind-body wellness and collaborative work between tribes and museums, both domestically and abroad. A real highlight was the session Healing the Divide from Trauma to Transformation, led by Dr. Noshene Ranjbar and Dennis Yellow Thunder. Noshene and Dennis had everyone up and moving, and Dennis was called on throughout the rest of the conference to supply encouragement, songs, prayers, and jokes. Presentations ranged from The Cost of Theft and Looting to Healing Auction Practices.

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Bad weather prevented some folks from joining in person–here Shannon Martin, director of the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways, and Jaime Arsenault, tribal historic preservation officer of the White Nation, share their work. Jaime also is a member of the Peabody Advisory Committee.

Attendees had an opportunity to sit with NAGPRA program manager Melanie O’Brien, who shared some of the ways that the National Park Service was planning to revise and improve the federal repatriation regulations. Despite nearly three decades of repatriation work, 58 percent of the ancestral remains held by museums and federal agencies are still classified as culturally unidentifiable, with only a limited pathway to repatriation. Conference attendees acknowledged that the term “culturally unidentifiable” was troubling and inaccurate. Language is important, and there was a lot of discussion about how to best refer to ancestral remains–there was agreement that human remains and funerary objects were better called people, ancestors, and belongings. We also learned about international repatriation efforts, including the similarities and differences with work by indigenous Australians to reclaim ancestors.

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Dr. Noshene Ranjbar and Dennis Yellow Thunder share important ways to interrupt cycles of trauma. Return of ancestors, funerary belongings, and sacred objects is one way to intervene.

Next year’s conference will be October 27 and 28, 2020—marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)—and held at the University of Denver Museum of Anthropology. If you are engaged in repatriation work this is an important event—it would be great to see more museum representation next year!

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