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Mimbres collection repatriation efforts at the University of Minnesota push forward after decades

"I think it's important to understand that these are our ancestors," said Shannon Geshick, Executive Director with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council.

ST PAUL, Minn. — The "racial reckoning' in 2020 sparked a movement, as millions of people across the globe marched for justice following the murder of George Floyd.

And that same year, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council pushed back on years of what they call a "stalemate" — issuing a resolution demanding the "University of Minnesota take immediate steps to repatriate and return any human remains in their custody," "including those at the U's well-known Weismann Art Museum.

"The University of Minnesota had a professor, Alfred Janks, between 1928 and 1931. Every summer he would take half a dozen students and go down to the southwest to teach these students archaeological techniques, would excavate the Pueblo and Hopi ancestors burial sites, which we know as the Mimbres," said Dylan Goetsch, with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC) which provides a liaison office to t10 of the 11 sovereign tribal nations and state government.

He says several hundred artifacts and human remains were brought back to Minnesota.

"A number of museums in Minnesota had large collections of our ancestors," he said.

Something the council and others began to question a long time ago.

"Asking yourself the questions, how would I feel if my grandmother was dug up with the quilt that she worked on," said Shannon Geshick, with MIAC.

In an effort to repatriate some of these artifacts, Minnesota passed a state burial protections law in the 1970s.

"And that law gives MIAC the ability to repatriate human remains to tribes today," said Goetsch. "Our agencies weren't the original agencies that excavated these individuals, and now we're the ones tasked with the efforts."

A few years later, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, better known as NAGPRA, was passed. Under the law, any federally funded institute had to work toward repatriation efforts.

"The tribes in the southwest told us they would accept repatriation but only if the funerary objects they were buried with came with them, and that led us to the issue we've been grappling with the last 20 to 30 years," said Goetsch.

With the help of several U of M students, Goetsch says they pushed forward to find documents to track down missing items. 

"When the U of M transferred a lot of their human remains to us, they didn't give us the funerary objects, they retained them and for the U of M those items were being housed at the Weismann Museum," said Goetsch.

"It was a very large excavation," said Alejandra Peña-Gutiérrez, with the Wesimann Art Museum.

Peña-Gutiérrez says throughout the years, many of the artifacts in the Mimbres collection landed in different institutions.

"The most difficult part was to get the other institutions, but there is a legal process to this," she said. "The good news is that we did manage, to get the other seven institutions that had agreed to do the filings with us."

A final inventory was completed last December, but some say this does highlight a few ongoing weaknesses when it comes to associating items traded to other museums under federal law.

Recently, the National Park Service hired an investigator to enhance oversight and museum compliance for the first time in in the NAGPRA's 31-year history. 

"It's really to correct a historical wrong that happened on a larger scale than anyone realizes," said Goetsch.

"You would think it's a simple issue, but there are a lot of legalities," SUNY Purchase College history professor Rachel Hallote.

"Ten years ago, most people hadn't heard of repatriation or repatriation debates, archaeologists had, but the public hadn't," she said.

Using an example of Greece's petition for the British Museum to return the Parthenon Marbles, Hallote says arguments for repatriation usually consist of moral obligations, but for those opposing, it's whether those ancient or historical societies still exist, or whether or not artifacts taken were legally obtained.

"What is the British Museum going to do if they do give it back, it's going to be a big empty room, or a couple of big empty rooms," she said. "Their argument has been it's part of British and Western history as well."

Now, the University of Minnesota and council say they're focused on moving forward.

"All of this is, regardless of federal law, just the moral thing to do, and the appropriate action to say we know better now," said Karen Diver, Senior Advisor to the President for Native American Affairs. 

"There are people who have never thought of things this way, they're surprised, like they had seen the Mimbres collection displayed for a long time and hadn't questioned if that should really be the case," said Peña-Gutiérrez.

"That wall that separates us needs to come down, because we are all human and we are all need to be treated with dignity and respect," said Geshick.

In August, The National Park Service (NPS) announced $2.1 million in grants to nine Indian Tribes and 20 museums to assist in the consultation, documentation and repatriation of ancestral remains and cultural items as part of the NAGPRA.

The U o f M says they are in communication with tribal nations associated with the Mimbres Collection. Goetsch says they could be repatriated in the next calendar year.

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