Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) FAQ

How many remains of Indigenous people are currently housed at Western?

The Anthropology Department currently has the care of the ancestral remains of 63 individuals, data which is available in the National Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) Inventory Database, contrary to the reported 89 individuals cited in recent news stories.

The updated count of 63 reported to NAGPRA in 2022 is due to ancestral remains that had been repatriated under agreements prior to NAGPRA's passage, which had not been previously reported.

Has Western publicly reported the ancestral remains and cultural items it houses?

We have formally reported our housing of these ancestral remains and items of cultural patrimony under the National Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) as part of the process of repatriation. Recent media reports on this topic about our holdings as well as those of thousands of other institutions around the United States are based upon publicly available information from our formal, public reporting to National NAGPRA. In our public reporting, we also included the Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (THPOs) for the tribes in our region, with whom we closely work.

Because this is a deeply private and sensitive matter for the descendant communities, we have limited public statements to those required by NAGPRA.

In what condition are these ancestral remains and how are you respectfully caring for them?

The ancestral remains referred to are small and fragmentary, as opposed to fully articulated skeletons. In some cases, the team involved in the review of all materials in our archaeology collection was able to identify ancestral remains among other materials which earlier archaeologists had missed. This has required highly technical expertise and painstaking work to identify.

None of these materials, whether ancestral remains or items of cultural patrimony, are used in instruction. They are not brought into the classroom and are stored with care and respect in a restricted-access room set aside for sensitive materials while they await repatriation.

Whose research are these remains part of?

The ancestral remains we house are not used in research or in classroom settings. They are in safe storage and under the care of WWU’s Anthropology Department in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

How do these remains and cultural items come into your care and will you continue to receive more?

Remains and items of cultural patrimony have come into archaeological collections via archaeological excavations and via other events, such as construction projects. Western’s collections have included materials excavated in the 1980s and earlier, which were repatriated according to agreements reached prior to NAGPRA.

In recent years, Western’s archaeology collections have housed ancestral remains and items of cultural patrimony subject to NAGPRA. We have repatriated many of these materials, keeping them close to their communities.

Working closely with our tribal partners, Western will very likely continue to be an interim hosting location for ancestral remains and items of cultural patrimony that are discovered in future excavations, construction projects, or natural events.

Why has it taken so long to reunite the remains with their communities of origin?

This is an ongoing and highly complex process, and not one with a clear start and end date. The WWU Anthropology Department alongside our Indigenous partners have been working for over a decade to identify all ancestral remains we currently house and has engaged in the repatriation of ancestral remains since the 1980s.

As part of an ongoing effort, we have renewed the process of seeking resources for a NAGPRA and Collections Manager, which would help us to complete the repatriation process. As we progress in this ongoing and sensitive process of identification and repatriation, we have been and will continue to work under the close guidance of our tribal partners and their respective Tribal Historic Preservation Officers.

This work is a priority for WWU’s anthropology department, falling squarely within our commitment to social justice, decolonizing, and right relationship with those on whose ancestral lands we live and work. The work to achieve NAGPRA compliance and to maintain the excellence of our archaeology program and our collections, and to serve as a resource for our community, will continue to be a focus for us, and with additional requested expertise we can be confident that we will be able to complete the critical, long overdue work of repatriation begun decades ago.

Media Queries