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Arkansas Archeology Survey prioritizes tribal partnerships in collection, excavation

The Arkansas Archeological Survey has made 1,965 Native American object available for repatriation.
Arkansas Archeological Survey
The Arkansas Archeological Survey has made 1,965 Native American object available for repatriation.

A new federal rule that speeds up the repatriation of Native American remains and tribal artifacts has rocked museums across the country - with curators removing items from display or even closing whole exhibits. But in Arkansas, the law hasn't had much of an effect. That's because most of the native objects in the state are housed by the University of Arkansas - specifically by the UofA Museum or the Arkansas Archeological Survey - both of which have been working with the 1990Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act - or NAGPRA- since it was enacted. Sarah Shepard is the NAGPRA coordinator for the Arkansas Archeological Survey and says so far they have made 1,965 items available for repatriation.

Ozark's at Large's Daniel Caruth spoke with Shepard earlier this month about the new rule, the items within the survey's collection and the significance of NAGPRA.

The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Daniel Caruth: So can you just walk me through a little bit about this new federal rule and sort of what that means for you guys at the survey?

Sarah Shepard: Yeah. Fortunately, it is not going to have a great amount of effect on us for the reason that the tribes that we consult with, we have been consulting with for for many years, and one of the things that the new regulations have changed is for other agencies. Affiliation has changed, I guess is a better way to put it. So if it's unknown affiliation, or if there was kind of questioned affiliation, then institutions were able to say that they could not affiliate the collection with a specific tribe, and therefore could not repatriate that doesn't affect the survey, because we have kind of geographic locations of the state affiliated with different tribes. And that's been the same way for probably 20 years, we still consult with tribes, and we still provide the same location or the location of wherever anything comes from the provenience of every collection to every tribe that we work with. And generally, there is kind of a geographic region that we associate with specific tribes. And so repatriation can move forward, even if we don't know where something came from, exactly. If we have the provenience of even a county level we can affiliate with with a specific tribal partner. So there are some other institutions that have not repatriated for whatever reason, saying that they couldn't affiliate with the tribe, and this new regulation says, you know, geographic affiliation is enough. So it gets it kind of cuts out the people that weren't able to do that before.

DC: And can you talk a little bit about that relationship, you know, with tribes and with repatriation of objects? From the surveys perspective, and maybe, from the the university perspective, because I imagine it wasn't always that this close relationship, like I don't know if you know the history or have an understanding of how it got to this point where it's a pretty good process?

SS: It takes work to maintain conversations and maintain relationships and providing information as openly as possible. You need upkeep and continued conversations regarding what we're doing. And there's still things that we need to do and doing, working towards that in good faith is a good is a big part of it. Yeah. And so what what are those things that maybe need to happen or that that we need to do? Better? I don't know. We're working on submitting a grant proposal for next year to identify unassociated funerary objects, which doesn't sound like what it means. So there's different types of funerary objects associated funerary objects means that, you know, were the individual that those objects were interred with is that that individual is housed in the same area as the funerary objects, whereas the unassociated funerary objects means that you know that it is from a mortuary context, but the location of that individual it was interred with is unknown. So identifying which objects in our control came from a burial, but without being able to, to say directly and to have the the person that that was buried with creates that different context. So we're working next to identify that type of collection and to get those repatriated.

DC: Can you talk a little bit about the collection of items that the survey has? Most of us probably don't know what the survey's role is or what you guys do, compared to maybe like the UofA museum or a different Museum in the state. So how did you guys come to get these objects and sort of what are they used for? Why do we have them?

SS: So this survey was funded in 1967. And we have 10 different research stations across the state, as well as the coordinating office here in Fayetteville. The research stations are at different campuses. So the station archaeologists there teach courses at like Henderson state, UAPB, UAM. And then we also have stations at the plum Bayou Mountain State Park, as well as Park in State Park and the WRI on Petit Jean Mountain. So it provides archeologist for local individuals who want to ask questions or to be out in public interacting with people and just kind of gives the whole state coverage for those for those resources. And so, those stations have all hosted excavations throughout the years since 1967. They have collections from individual landowners that have wanted to donate material. There are currently contract projects, the survey used to have a contract program. So some of those collections are at the stations, but most of them are here in our curation facility. And there are archaeological projects that go on across the state by our.by, the Forest Service, National Parks, and any kind of whenever there's federal money involved in a project, a, an Archeological Survey is required. So that happens for cell phone towers for roads for all kinds of projects, which sometimes result in collections. And so all of that material is housed here as well. And then we get donations from from individuals from institutions whose roles are changing, we had a large transfer from the Museum of Discovery in Little Rock when it swapped its focus. So just kind of all over the place. Really,

DC: Yeah it's quite a wide breadth. So, when you get an object or like, say, someone comes to you and says, I found this, this is a collection that I had, what does that process of going through it, trying to figure out if there are objects that fall underneath NAGPRA and then working with a tribe contacting a tribe and saying, Okay, we need to give these items back or comply with this, what does that process look like?

SS: So in the past, it was less frowned upon to dig human remains, as time has gone on, that has shifted, thankfully. But that does oftentimes leave people with inheriting certain objects, or even human remains that were removed in the past. And so we do have people who want to bring those objects in and do the right thing with them. And so it just kind of depends on what kind of information they can provide. Usually very pretty whole vessels or really nice artifacts. Those aren't just going to wash up on the surface, right? So when we don't have a lot of information on those objects, we're working on just providing that information to the tribal partners and saying, you know, look, we don't know exactly where this came from, besides whatever the family member could identify. But, you know, certain things are only for mortuary. Not only certain things are more likely to have come from a mortuary context. And so we can just say, this is what we know about it. This is where it came from. If you would like for us to proceed as if it does fall under NAGPRA, we can do that. And going forward, we'd like to try and give the option to the tribe instead of us making that decision. And if it is determined to be a default under NAGPRA, then it's kind of a process of writing a it's a paper called as a summary that we provide to the tribe and to the National Park Service, NAGPRA office, the tribe places a request for repatriation, if it's an unassociated funerary object, and then we can publish a notice in the Federal Register, we wait 30 days, if there's no competing claim on it, then we can move forward with repatriation to the tribe.

DC: And this rule, this compliance, why is it important? Because I think a lot of people maybe see objects like this, and it's very sterilized. We're just seeing it from a museum perspective, we're not seeing the humanity behind a lot of these objects. Just from your perspective, and from the survey and all this work that you guys are doing - why is it important for people outside of this work to understand why this law exists and why this new federal rule is in place?

SS: Well, I think it just returns some of the humanity to the objects that you're looking at an important thing that the new regulations do as well is to return the narrative to the tribal perspective. So instead of an archaeologist or a curator, getting to decide how those things are interpreted, or what is said about those or even how it's classified, that power is returned to tribal knowledge is returned to the tribes that those things belong to and they can create the narrative, they can decide how it's interpreted or if it's interpreted.

DC: So I was looking through a lot of the like the records and I know ProPublica has compiled this sort of survey of who has objects based on each state. And I've noticed that in Arkansas we're fairly good, I think it's at like 82 percent of objects have been repatriated or reclaimed. So, how does Arkansas fare when it comes to complying with NAGPRA?

SS: Well, we've had people at the survey working on it, getting us there for a long time. I can't speak for the you have a museum collections, specifically but the survey has had consultation meetings in 1990, when it was passed and sat down with the tribes and tried to make a plan. And we've worked on inventories since then, part of the the trouble with NAGPRA is that it it does put these regulations and these requirements out, but then it doesn't. Outside of the grants, it doesn't really provide avenues to get that done. So we have had a series of grants from NPS that have supported work by I was a graduate student whenever I did the beginning of this. So that supported work continuously since the 90s, that have allowed us to, to keep working towards full compliance. But if you don't have that position, a lot of institutions, a lot of tribal nations don't have the extra funds to put towards someone to do this full time. So I mean, even tribes don't have people that to just sit and watch the Federal Register, you know, if you don't, if you don't sit and watch the Federal Register, and someone's not consulting with you, then how are you? How are these tribes supposed to know that that's happening? So you know, it's getting a little bit more attention now, just for the fact that objects are not sterile. They have a they have a history, they have a past. And it's been interpreted one way for a long time and controlled one way for a long time. So I think it's beneficial that that's starting to shift a little bit. And I hope that people can, you know, realize, or appreciate the history that these objects have gone through and that there are people that need to be returned home. It's not, it's not just artifacts, it's not collections, it's people that need to be returned home. So it's good that it's getting more attention and hopefully, hopefully that can make more repatriation happen.

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Daniel Caruth is KUAF's Morning Edition host and reporter for Ozarks at Large<i>.</i>
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