OKLAHOMA CITY -- Dozens of American Indian leaders endorsed a proposal Friday for a national tribal coalition to oversee and help speed the return of ancestral remains and artifacts from museums.
A decade after a federal law gave tribes permission to reclaim remains and ceremonial objects from federally funded museums, hundreds of thousands of such objects still sit in warehouses and on museum shelves, said Chickasaw Nation Lt. Gov. Jefferson Keel.
The problem, Keel said, is that many of the artifacts can't be linked to specific tribes, clouding the process by which they would be returned.
Rather than having the items sit in a museum while their fate is debated in federal and tribal circles, the coalition would make those decisions internally, Keel said, quickening a repatriation process that is still ongoing 10 years after passage of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
''What we're striving to do now is bring some unity to the process in terms of presenting a voice to Congress and to the federal government on how to decide how these items ought to be treated and repatriated,'' Keel said.
The repatriation act allows tribes to retrieve ancestral remains and certain tribal artifacts from any museum that receives federal funds. Museums and universities must notify tribes of any remains or burial artifacts in their collections, but the burden is on the tribes to prove they are rightful owners. If they can't, the items will often just stay put, Keel said, since there is no formal process on how to handle ''culturally identifiable'' remains and artifacts.
Keel's proposal would establish a committee made up of tribal officials to oversee the repatriation process. It would replace the current committee, run under the Department of Interior.
Faith Bad Bear, a member of the Crow Nation and curator of ethnology at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul, said she has seen firsthand how museums can be slow to accept the law. She said that only makes painful a process meant to provide eternal peace.
''When we buried our dead, we expected them to stay in the ground. We didn't expect to have to go through this mourning process again,'' she said. ''This law has opened up a lot of old wounds again. And it wasn't for that.''
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