NAGPRA & WWU Anthropology

Anthropology Department NAGPRA Update - February 2023

Judith M.S. Pine, Chair

The WWU Anthropology Department alongside tribal partners have been working for over a decade to identify all ancestral remains we currently house. As has been noted in recent media coverage, the department has engaged in the repatriation of ancestral remains since the 1980s via agreements that were reached prior to 1990 and the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). None of these materials are in use in the classroom; all are stored with care and respect under the guidance of the descendant communities as they await repatriation. We are, as a department, fully committed to the important and ongoing work of caring for and repatriating ancestral remains and objects of cultural patrimony.

Our repatriation work has not been driven by a need to comply with federal regulations, but rather our commitment to repatriation of all ancestral remains. Our priority, as laid out by the tribal partners, has been to make sure no ancestral remains, even fragments, were left behind. Our work of repatriation in partnership with descendant communities began in the 1980s before NAGPRA was passed, and our work of going back through the collections for concerted repatriation efforts began in 2011, well before National NAGPRA started putting pressure on repositories to comply with regulations. The work we did was based on the need for WWU to have clean collections and the tribal communities to have confidence that their ancestors were not in boxes misidentified and separated from their home places. They are aware of how long this process might take and have been thorough and thoughtful partners in this work. While our work will bring us into compliance with NAGPRA, a legal obligation, our legal obligation has been and continues to be secondary to our moral and ethical obligations and commitments to collaborative process for the members of the department and our partners doing this work. Throughout this process, the national NAGPRA authorities have been kept aware of our progress, formally or informally.

The ProPublica article which brought media attention to this issue very rightly critiqued institutions who have not actively engaged in the work of repatriation. Although we have not yet completed the work of repatriation, our department has been actively engaged in this work with our tribal partners under the leadership of Prof. Sarah Campbell. Prof. Campbell, Prof. Alyson Rollins, and tribal partners have worked together diligently for years toward returning ancestors to their communities. We have also, for over a decade, sought funding for a full-time position to bring us into compliance with NAGPRA and archaeological collections management regulations. In the absence of this funding, we are grateful for the work by dedicated individuals for whom this was officially seen as additional service. We can be justifiably proud of their steadfast efforts. Our departmental commitment to righting the serious wrongs of colonial practices continues to hearten me. We are not perfect, but we are moving in a good direction and will continue to do so.

To clarify some factual details from previous reporting, the Anthropology Department does not currently have care of the remains of 89 ancestors, the figure reported in the media. We currently have the care of 63 individuals. This information is available in the National NAGPRA Inventory Database ( The difference in this number is the result of delay in reporting repatriations, and not a delay in repatriation of ancestral remains. Numbers of remains may change over time, as is noted on the ProPublica site. In our case the team involved in the review of all materials in our archaeology collection, which included representatives of the Western Anthropology Department and of the Lummi Nation, was able to identify ancestral remains among other materials that earlier archaeologists had missed. The number of individuals represented by remains is determined by what archaeologists and National NAGPRA refer to as a Minimum Number of Individuals (MNI). Determining the number of individuals who are represented by the ancestral remains in our collections is the work of professionals; in this
case the team. The Lummi Nation was able to provide funding that has been vital to this work, and we have been led by our tribal partners to accomplish the shared goal of identifying and repatriating all ancestral remains and items of cultural patrimony.

It’s important to clarify that the ancestral remains discussed here are not fully articulated skeletons but rather fragmentary remains, requiring highly technical expertise and painstaking work to identify. Moreover, these are remains that we have formally reported under the National Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) as part of the process of repatriation. In our reporting to National NAGPRA, we have also included the Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (THPOs) for the tribes in our region, with whom we closely work. While we do not widely advertise the fact that we have ancestral remains in our care – recognizing this as a deeply private matter for those whose ancestors we currently house – we have made regular reports to National NAGPRA and to the local THPOs. As noted above, the erroneous figure of 89 individuals represented is the result of our delay in reporting repatriation of the remains of 26 individuals.

The accurate numbers of ancestral remains that we have reported and will continue to report are the result of years of painstaking examination of every box of archaeological materials in our collection by the experts on the team, as well as a thorough review of all of our records conducted by Dr. Campbell and Ms. Emma Dubois in Fall quarter 2022. The department commissioned this review of our records alongside the Needs Assessment conducted by Willamette CRM in Fall 2022, to ensure that we are accurate.

The process of compliance with the federal regulations under NAGPRA is very clearly laid out. It requires that we have access to expertise to appropriately complete the repatriation process. As part of an ongoing effort tracing back at least to 2013, we have renewed the process of seeking resources for a NAGPRA and Collections Manager, an individual who would have this expertise, which would allow us to complete the repatriation process. As we progress in the 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 Historical 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 lands we live and work. The work to achieve NAGPRA compliance, 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. With additional requested expertise, we can be confident that we will be able to complete the work of repatriation begun decades ago.