Cultural items reunited with Nez Perce Tribe
Nearly four decades after a highway project unearthed them, a lengthy curation project has repatriated several sets of Native American human remains with the Nez Perce Tribe, along with several thousand artifacts and related documents from north-central Idaho. These items represent a small part of the project carried out by Idaho Transportation Department’s (ITD) partners at the Archaeological Survey of Idaho, Northern Repository (ASINR), located at the University of Idaho.
The human remains and associated objects were excavated in association with the development of the Lenore Rest Area, located on US Highway 12, approximately 27 miles east of Lewiston. That work occurred between 1967 and 1972, and is located within the Nez Perce Indian Reservation.
The identification of human remains and related items presented ITD with new obligations, but also new opportunities to address ITD’s archaeological curation issues.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of November 1990 requires federal and state agencies, along with museums and other institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American "cultural items" to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations. Cultural items include human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony.
After the excavation of the remains and articfacts, the collections sat in a backlog at the ASINR until approximately 2005, when ITD began to provide funding for curating and rehabilitation of all of their excavated collections. When human remains were identified in the collections, ASINR staff members, with ITD support and oversight, embarked on the process of inspecting every item to determine if it was a candidate for repatriation.
Research of the collections revealed a strong relationship with the Nez Perce Tribe, and the official consultation process began in 2013. Tribal representatives traveled to the ASINR to help review artifacts and other objects for inclusion in the repatriation. Once the inventory was completed and approved by the Nez Perce Tribe, ITD and ASINR drafted a notice for publication in the Federal Register announcing their intent to repatriate the cultural items.
Although the NAGPRA process can be long, the important work marks an era of greater understanding between federal and state agencies, academic institutions and Native American cultures. U.S. institutions and agencies have struggled to comply with federal legislation and other mandates governing the care and maintenance of archaeological collections.
Dr. Leah Evans-Janke, Archaeological Collections manager at ASINR, points out that they have more than 750 collections in their facility with over 100 different owners.
ITD Archaeologist Marc Munch talks with ASINR employees during a recent visit. "The repatriation of these cultural items to the Nez Perce Tribe has strengthened the working relationship between the Tribe and ITD, and we are pleased these items have been returned," Munch said.