U of M is repatriating Indigenous remains, expanding Native American tuition assistance, and more

The University of Minnesota has taken a step forward in efforts to repatriate Mimbres remains and cultural objects dug up by University professors and students as part of an archeological dig from 1928-1931.

It’s one of several actions the University has taken in response to a July, 2020 resolution from the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC) “to take swift and immediate actions to address institutional racism and improve the school’s relationship with Minnesota’s 11 federally recognized tribal nations.”

MIAC is a liaison to Minnesota state government for those Tribes.

Other University actions include:

  • Expanding tuition assistance to Native American students
  • Investigating claims of abusive medical research on children from the Red Lake Nation
  • Addressing land issues with the Fond du Lac Band
  • Establishing wild rice research protocols

Even the source of these updates speaks to the University’s intentions moving forward. It was provided by Karen Diver, Senior Advisor for Native American Affairs to University President Joan Gabel. Diver started in May, 2021 and is the first person to hold the position.

Diver also was the Special Assistant for Native American Affairs under President Obama, and a past Chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Karen Diver. Image: University of Minnesota

The MIAC resolution has a detailed list of actions it sought from the University.

The University’s response isn’t a comprehensive to MIAC’s letter, “but is responding to the items prioritized by Tribal leaders,” Diver wrote in an email.

Most of the University’s efforts are still a work in progress.

Here’s the update:

Repatriating Indigenous remains and funerary objects

MIAC 2020 statement: In spite of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, “the University of Minnesota has failed to fully comply with returning human remains and continues to treat stolen sacred objects as University property for use and display at the University of Minnesota’s Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum.”

Update: In February, the University’s Board of Regents authorized the repatriation of the collection of Mimbres-affiliated cultural objects. (The Mimbres lived in southern New Mexico around 1000 – 1150 C.E.)

The collection includes “thousands of Mimbres objects and more than 150 human burial remains,” according to the University. “The objects ranged from stone tools, arrowheads, [and] points to animal-bone awls, beads, pendants and painted bowls.”

The University recently submitted the final inventory of remains and funerary objects to the federal government, Diver wrote. It’s a required step in repatriation.

“The University is coordinating with other institutions to repatriate Mimbres items in their collections, as Tribes have expressed that the items should be repatriated as a complete group,” she wrote. “There is also coordination with the Tribes to identify a final resting place for the ancestors and objects.”

The University’s Anthropology Department had the Mimbres ancestors (human remains) until 1989, when they were transferred to MIAC under state law.

In 1992, the University transferred the funerary objects to the Weisman Art Museum, where they stayed at least until late 2020. The objects now are at Hamline University’s Osteology Repository, under an agreement with MIAC.

Expanding the Native American tuition assistance

MIAC statement: The University had provided “inadequate academic, financial and student support services to successfully recruit, admit, retain and graduate American Indian students.”

Update: Last November, the University announced the Native American Promise Tuition Program. It will provide free or reduced tuition starting in fall 2023 to incoming freshman and tribal college transfer students who are citizen’s of one of the 11 Tribal Nations in Minnesota.

The program has income guidelines.

In addition, the University is thoroughly reviewing Native student services “to make sure students feel welcome, can navigate the university, and have assistance with problem-solving,” Diver wrote.

Investigating medical research abuses on Red Lake children

MIAC statement: The University Medical School experimented “on Red Lake children without parental knowledge, causing the children to get nephritis.”

Update: In partnership with the Red Lake Nation, the University has hired researchers to get the facts around MIAC’s claim of research abuses.

This history isn’t well documented. There are a number of medical articles that cite the University’s Red Lake research. I found one that discussed the ethics behind the research.

That was a 1974 article First Our Land, Now Our Health in the Science for the People Magazine. It offers a window into the problem.

According to the article:

In 1954, the U.S. Army contracted with the University’s Medical School to research bacteria that can cause impetigo (which causes very contagious skin rashes) and nephritis (which causes kidney inflammation). (There’s a connection between the two diseases; those skin rashes can evolve into kidney problems.)

Red Lake was chosen for the study because in 1953, young children there had significant epidemics of both impetigo and nephritis. Another Red Lake study occurred in 1970.

Reservation residents weren’t treated as patients to be cured, “but as a source of experimental data.”

In the 1970 study, for instance, a mother and her 5-year-old twins got impetigo rashes that turned into nephritis-related kidney problems. The twins and their siblings all had impetigo. They were monitored three times per week but left untreated so researchers could determine the time between the first impetigo lesion and the first signs of kidney problems.

Penicillin would have cured them quickly.

Addressing the Fond du Lac Band’s land claim

MIAC statement: “The University still lays claim today to tribal lands within the Fond du Lac Reservation which were wrongfully taken from the Band.”

This refers to the Cloquet Forestry Center, which covers 3,471 acres (5.4 square miles) within the Fond du Lac Band’s reservation. The Center opened in 1909 and is the University’s primary research and education forest.

Update: The University has done an internal review of the legal status of the Forestry Center’s land, Diver wrote. It falls into three categories. The University owns some of the land outright. The University owns some of the land but it’s subject to State of Minnesota general obligation bond covenants (which put restrictions on how the land is used). The State of Minnesota owns rest for the benefit of the Forestry Center.

(Aside: These different ownership arrangements will complicate land back efforts.)

The University has made a comprehensive list of the Center’s research, “and there are discussions about transferring that research to other locations,” Diver said.

Establishing wild rice research protocols

MIAC statement: The University had attempted to replicate “the DNA of Manoomin [wild rice] without involvement of tribal governments, which in its natural state is sacred to Anishinaabe people.”

Update: The University of Minnesota “is in the process of developing a Best Practices in Tribal Research protocol and training program to inform researchers about Tribal sovereignty, appropriate consent and protocols,” Diver wrote. 

For an introduction to Diver, see this April 21 Native Minnesota podcast: Building trust with tribal nations with Karen Diver.

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