Statement from the President on Repatriating Native Ancestral Remains

Last week, ProPublica published a report and database which included data from Western, covering the holdings of Native American ancestral remains in museums and universities across the country and the progress that they have made in repatriating their collections to their rightful Indigenous communities, under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). In its essence, NAGPRA enables a process in which Indigenous peoples work with the institutions who temporarily house their ancestors’ remains – and ultimately repatriate them.  

Please know that we take this matter very seriously, giving it the utmost respect and attention that it deserves. Western’s Anthropology Department has appropriately been leading this work on behalf of Western, committed to this ongoing and complex process for decades, working alongside our Indigenous partners to identify all the ancestral remains that come into our care. Determining tribal affiliation for these remains, which is required before the legal process of repatriation takes place, takes time, highly technical expertise, and of course, close guidance from and collaboration with tribal partners.  

We also understand that this is a deeply sensitive and private matter for the tribes whose ancestors we currently house, and avoiding any sensationalizing and misreporting is important to us as their partners in this work. To support this, we have compiled a set of Frequently Asked Questions (wwu.edu/NAGPRA) where our experts address the most common queries with regard to the remains in our care and the efforts we’re making to repatriate them to their descendants.  

We recognize that we have more work to do to ensure that the ancestral remains we currently house are returned home, completing what we started years ago. We recognize the need for securing additional expertise and resources, which will enable us to complete the repatriation process per NAGPRA rules, continuing to work under the close guidance of the tribes and their historic preservation officers.  

The respectful housing and repatriation of ancestral remains is of the utmost importance to us as an institution. Our main campus sits on the ancestral homelands of the Coast Salish peoples, our community is inextricably connected with our Indigenous neighbors, and the work to return their ancestors’ remains is central to our commitment to pursuing justice and equity in everything we do as an institution and as a community. 

We will keep you informed as we continue to advance this important work. 

Sabah Randhawa
President
Western Washington University

Thursday, January 19, 2023 - 9:29am