The Texas Archeological Research Laboratory, which is on the UT campus, holds nearly 2,000 Native American human remains, according to Bryant Celestine, a representative from the Alabama-Coushatta tribe of Texas.
UT researchers originally acquired the human remains from excavations during New Deal-era public works’ projects, donations and purchases from private collections and other construction-related excavations, said Marybeth Tomka, head of collections at the laboratory. Celestine said he believes the human remains should belong to their respective tribes.
Bureaucratic requirements within the repatriation process and the historical realities of Texan Native Americans make it difficult for tribes to reclaim and rebury the remains of their ancestors today, according to Celestine and anthropology associate professor Shannon Speed.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 currently governs the repatriation process for Native American human remains. In order for a tribe to complete the process, the tribe must be federally recognized and must be able to prove its affiliation with the remains in question.
The lack of natively Texan, federally recognized tribes in the country makes it difficult for the remains to reach the tribe that they belong to, Speed said.
“The biggest issue in Texas with regards to repatriation is that we have had many, many tribes over time in this area, but we currently only have three federally recognized tribes, none of which are original to the area,” Speed said. “All the remains are extremely unlikely to be from any one of those tribes, and the appropriate tribes aren’t automatically consulted for [Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act] because they are not federally recognized.”
Celestine said the requirement to prove the human remains’ affiliation with documentation hinders many tribes’ ability to repatriate remains because existing research has incorrect information.
“A lot of times the information that is in those documents is not necessarily from the native point of view,” Celestine said. “They contain assumptions that have been made over time based on one researcher’s experience, and at some point, it becomes the law of the land and anything that challenges that is normally disrespected and ignored. It impedes upon some tribes ability to get repatriation in certain instances.”
Tomka said the laboratory has recently undertaken new initiatives to reach out to tribes native to Texas living outside of the state and to make honest efforts in finding and using reliable information to ensure that all tribes have a fair opportunity to claim their ancestors.
“It’s just best policy to start the consultation process as soon as possible [and] as fair as possible,” Tomka said. “It works out for everybody because then nobody feels like they are being ignored [and] nobody feels like they are being stepped on or put aside. So we ask, ‘We are going into an area that is in your native lands. What would you like us to do?’”