The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Revisited: Negotiating Culture, Legalities, and Challenges

The Wesleyan Collections, like many other anthropology and archaeology collections around the country and world, have a legacy of exploitative collecting practices – particularly relating to Native Americans. In 1990 the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed by Congress, drastically changing the relationship between museums and other collecting institutions – including Wesleyan – and Native tribes.

On Friday November 4th the collections co-sponsored an event titled “The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Revisited: Negotiating Culture, Legalities, and Challenges” to explore the intricacies of the law as well as its specific implications at Wesleyan. In the keynote address Suzan Harjo talked about the history of how NAGPRA came to be, and her own involvement in its development, starting in 1967. Her talk was followed by a panel, moderated by Professor J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, and including Jessie Cohen, Barker Farris, Elaine Thomas, and Marissa Turnbull (see below for speaker affiliation and credentials).

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Jessie Cohen, Archaeology and Anthropology Collection Manager and NAGPRA Coordinator; Barker Farris, Repatriation Coordinator and Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, University of Massachusetts, Amherst (UMass); Suzan Shown Harjo, policy advocate, curator, writer, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom; Elaine Thomas, Deputy Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, The Mohegan Tribe; and Marissa Turnbull, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation; Professor J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, Professor of American Studies and Anthropology, Wesleyan University.

The audience included many students in classes related to this topic including Professor Kauanui’s students from her Colonialism and Its Consequences and Indigenous Politics classes. Here are some of those student’s thoughts on the event and how it relates to their studies.

Mira Klein ‘17:

“Suzan Shown Harjo’s keynote again reminded me of a major (if not the major) theme discussed in our course so far in analyzing U.S. Indian law: inconsistency. Specifically, inconsistency as fostered through groups and individuals who interpret, enact, and bend the law to fit the desires of the State or other related actors. The moments when this inconsistency stood out the most were in discussing the language of “human remains” for NAGPRA and the transfer of Smithsonian collections to the Museum of the American Indian.

In the NAGPRA case, as Harjo emphasized, changing the lexicon embedded in the law was really important so that this language would also be necessarily incorporated into the language of potential adversaries. In the “human remains” discussion, which was fraught with controversy, it was pushed through Congress because there happened to be a critical mass of people at the time who claimed to support human rights. In the museum case, Harjo details how the process of transfer was shaped in part by the fact that the new Smithsonian director happened to be somebody she got along with. In both of these cases, the individuals involved played a big part in how the situation played out. Similarly, in many of the court cases we have discussed, the seemingly wildly inconsistent decisions have been wrought by small groups of individuals. How much must individuals or climates of individuals be considered when pushing for new legislation and regulation? Or is this a false amount of agency to embed within these individuals?”


Harjo giving the key note address.

Brenda Quintana ‘18:

“The speakers for the event were really incredible and it really helped me understand repatriation as a process interdependent on many institutions and people. The process is very complicated and long, and while this is to make sure every party involved is fully informed, to an extent the same process treats ancestors like simply being part of a collection. However it is obvious that the people working on NAGPRA compliance have a very serious commitment to the people and tribes.

One thing that struck me was the reburial of almost 100 ancestors during the repatriation at UMASS. Particularly after learning about the grave diggers who would wait by mourners before they invaded the graves and decapitated the corpses, it made me think about the right of burial. I think one important thing that I had originally overlooked about NAGPRA was that it wasn’t just about returning stolen items to tribes, but about returning bodies who had been displaced after death. Even in death, their bodies were seen as inconveniences to building projects, or treated as archaeological treasures to “learn from.” Value was given to the bodies because indigenous bodies are placed in this ancient past, despite that not often being the case. Reburial is a powerful thing, but I can only imagine how many more bodies need to be reburied to bring a degree of peace to the dead.”

Julia Lejeune ‘18:

“I found it really interesting to hear the perspectives of the NAGPRA coordinators on the panel, especially Jessie Cohen’s Wesleyan-specific experiences. I especially liked hearing Jessie describe the “spirit” versus the “letter” of the NAGRPA law. The spirit of the law is to right the wrongs of collection processes that treat the human remains and cultural objects of indigenous people as sub-human, and the property of museums/archaeologists rather than the families and tribes to which they were stolen from. Jessie Cohen described how the actual “letter” of NAGRPA was more difficult to follow, and that repatriation processes can take years to complete. Jessie Cohen told a story1 of finding a box of indigenous remains and associated funerary objects, and how instead of going through the whole repatriation process, she simply contacted tribal officials directly and made the return. This was an example of following the “spirit” of the law rather than strictly the letter.”

Read the Argus’s coverage of the event here.

1 This example relates to work that took place at another institution prior to Cohen’s hiring at Wesleyan.


Posted by Isabel Alter ’17

Photos courtesy of J. J. Kēhaulani Kauanui

Decolonizing Indigenous Middletown

At the Center for the Americas, the students from the Decolonizing Indigenous Middletown course taught by Professor Kauanui gather around the seminar table. At the head is Gary O’Neil, a Wangunk descendant of Jonathan Palmer. Beside him is Jessie Cohen, Wesleyan’s Archeology Collections Manager and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) compliance officer. Gary is here to present his family’s oral history and teach the students how to make pinch pots and Jessie is here to present local Connecticut pottery sherds from the Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collections. Due to their fragmentary nature the sherds can be difficult to date; that said, some of the markings and impressions on the pottery are demonstrative of dates ranging to over a thousand years ago.


(Pictured above from left to right: Jessie Cohen, Gary O’Neil, Lauren Burke (student), photo taken by Professor Kauanui.)

The Decolonizing Indigenous Middletown course took a decolonizing methodological approach to the scarcely documented Wangunk history and included a service-learning component. The Wangunk people, part of the Algonquin cultural group, historically resided over Mattabesset, presently known as Middletown and Portland, which reached as far as Chatham and Wethersfield. Students logged approximately three hours a week at the Middlesex County Historical Society (MCHS), where they looked at documents in search of any mention or reference to Wangunk people in the English colonial period of Middletown. The class took field trips to different colonial historical sites that serve as examples of the erasure of Wangunk presence. Those sites included Indian Hill Cemetery, Founders Rock, and a sculpture at Harbor Park on the Connecticut River. The class also visited the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Mashantucket, CT.


(Pictured above: students, Lauren Burke, Ari Ebstein, and Emily Hart, and Jessie Cohen presenting the pottery sherds, photo taken by Professor Kauanui)

The course took advantage of the Archeology Collections by looking at local Connecticut pottery sherds. The sherds are of Native origins and were excavated and/or collected throughout sites in Middletown and surrounding towns. This brought to discussion the role that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, or NAGPRA, plays in the course and the collections, not only at Wesleyan but also at every other NAGPRA complying institution.

In compliance with the federal law enacted on November 16th 1990 (NAGPRA), all publicly funded institutions or establishments are obligated to repatriate human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony to lineal descendants, culturally affiliated Native tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations. With the 2014 appointment of Jessie Cohen as the Archeology Collections Manager and the NAGPRA compliance officer, Wesleyan administration has committed to compliance.

The pottery sherds from the collection sparked the discussion of what and how objects are considered sacred or culturally patrimonial objects. So then how do collection managers maneuver through collections and categorize objects as falling under the NAGPRA category, or falling under the general collections category?


(The local Connecticut pottery sherds from Wesleyan’s archeology collections, photo taken by Professor Kauanui)

After discussing NAGPRA and the archeology collections’ compliance with NAGPRA, the class shifted gears and prepared to listen to O’Neil present his family’s oral history and take part in pinch pot artist module, supported by the CFA Mellon Faculty Creative Campus Module.


(Pictured above: students, Taina Quinones, Iryelis Lopez, Yael Horowitz, Abigail Cunniff, Maia Reumann-Moore, and Sophie Sokolov, with Gary O’Neil standing at head of table, photo taken by Professor Kauanui)

O’Neil began by tracing his archival journey, starting with the oral histories of his family. He spoke about his great-grandmother and his grandmother, and how they both influenced him through their story-telling and their strength as matriarchal figures in a large extended kinship network. He spoke about how their stories, and the histories they told him, were starting points in his archival research. He recalled names and places, and used those as guiding points in tracing his family’s line back to Jonathan Palmer, a Wangunk; O’Neil is now the genealogist of the remaining Wangunks. Jonathan Palmer was a Wagunk, who in Carl F. Price’s Yankee Township, is referred to as the Jonathan Indian, the last “full-blooded” Wangunk. This “lasting” of Jonathan Palmer, and Indigenous peoples in general, is a tactic used to discount Native American presence presently and throughout history.

The artist module portion of the course, where Gary brought clay and tools to the classroom, taught the class methods of making pinch pots and immersing oneself in the process. Pinching the pots was where body and earth met, where Gary said his past and his present merged and took the form of pottery. This portion of the course brought together the archeology collections’ clay pottery sherds, and the present work being done on unearthing the hidden archival history of the Wangunk people of Mattabesset, the place now known as Middletown.


(Pictured above: Gary O’Neil holding the student’s clay pinch pots, photo taken by Professor Kauanui)

The process of O’Neil teaching the history of his relationship with clay, the relevance of the pottery within the collection, and the class members’ hands-on learning, was a culmination of the intentions of the course. The archeology collection sherds, side by side with our contemporary pinch-pots, all contribute to the unearthing and decolonizing of Wangunk history. The archival work done by the students and the current contributions by O’Neil, represent the engagement with the past and the present.

At the end of the fall semester, there was the Indigenous Middletown: Settler Colonial and Wangunk Tribal History Panel held on Saturday December 5th, which culminated a semester’s worth of research and work. The panel consisted of Lucianne Lavin Ph.D, author of Connecticut’s Indigenous Peoples: What Archeology, History, and Oral Traditions Teach Us About Their Communities and Cultures, Timothy Ives Ph.D, Principal archaeologist at the Rhode Island State Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission and scholar of Wangunk history, Reginald W. Bacon, Editor of The Middler, the newsletter of the Society of Middletown First Settlers Descendants, and Gary O’Neil, Descendant of Jonathan Palmer and genealogist of the remaining Wangunks in Middlesex County. ***Watch a recording of the panels speakers and following Q&A session here!*** As a follow-up to the fall semester’s panel, on March 26th, at the Russel Library, four students from the Decolonizing Indigenous Middletown course presented their final papers at the Looking for Indigenous Middletown in Colonial Archives: Settler Erasure of Wangunk Indian Tribal History event.; the student presenters were: Iryelis Lopez ’17 American Studies major , Maia Reumann-Moore ’18 History and Religion major, Abigail Cunniff ’17 American Studies major, and Yael Horowitz ’17 African-American Studies and Film major.

Decolonizing Indigenous Middletown: Native Histories of the Wangunk People, as a course produced a Wikipedia page on the Wangunk. The students combed through the Middlesex Historical Society’s records in search of Wangunk history, and successfully began to decolonize Wangunk history, but this is only the beginning. The pottery sherds from the archeology collections contributed to the course by allowing for there to be a conversation on the past and the present of the Indigenous people of this region. The pottery sherds allowed for history to meet contemporary, and for the conversation of theoretical unearthing of Wangunk history, and literal unearthing of pottery from the region.

Posted by Iryelis Lopez ’17