A number of Native American ancestral human remains and funerary objects that had been housed in Whitman College’s Maxey Museum (formerly the Northwest Museum) were repatriated to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Tuesday, Nov. 25. 

This return of ancestral artifacts and remains, which took place over a 13-year process in compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 undoubtedly will further positive relations with local Native Americans, said Brian Dott, associate professor of history and director of the Maxey Museum.

According to NAGPRA, the Weyíiletpuu (Cayuse), Ímatalamláma (Umatilla), and Walúulapam (Walla Walla) (who comprise the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation) have a right to items of cultural value such as ancestral remains, sacred objects, funerary objects and objects of cultural patrimony that have been housed in Maxey Museum.

Dialogue between the Tribes and the college regarding two sets of funerary items and ancestral remains that began around 1995 culminated in the transfer of control to the Tribes for reburial this week.

Some of the remains were found by chance in the area, in what are known as “inadvertent” discoveries, and then donated to the college museum beginning in the late 1920s. For example, in 1952, human remains were excavated during construction at Green Park Elementary school in Walla Walla, and then donated to the museum. The most recent donation of remains to the museum occurred in 1962 after they were unearthed at a farm near Milton-Freewater.

But the bulk of the remains came to the college as a result of large excavations that took place in the late 1940s along the Columbia River preceding the construction of McNary Dam. At the time, the excavations of those burial sites were deemed archaeologically important but went against the Tribes’ wishes.

In accordance with tribal beliefs and practices, the repatriated remains and funerary objects were reburied at undisclosed locations, within the ancestral homelands of the three Tribes. The ceremony was open to a small contingent of Whitman administration and faculty members and students.

Armand Minthorn, tribal religious leader and chairman of the Confederated Tribes’ Cultural Resources Committee, oversaw the repatriation and officiated at the reburial ceremony. According to Minthorn, “The most important thing to the Tribes is getting them back in the ground where they belong.”

“Because of past repatriations,” he continued, “museums, universities, institutions, and federal agencies are beginning to share in the understanding of that same importance to get them back into the ground. It is our number one priority in terms of fulfilling NAGPRA. It may be the letter of the law or the intent but cooperation and collaboration is beginning to demonstrate itself with museums, universities and federal agencies.

“With Whitman College, it has been an on-and-off negotiation mainly because of administrative changes there. And because the negotiation has been this way, we haven’t been able to establish a long-term relationship with Whitman College and we need to. NAGPRA can be a basis from which we can start a more formal and lasting relationship.”

"It was an honor to take part in the repatriation and reburial ceremony,” said Whitman College President George Bridges. “This event opens an opportunity to continue strengthening the relationships between Whitman College, the Walla Walla community and the Cayuse, Walla Walla and Umatilla people who comprise the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation."

Indeed, the college plans to continue to strengthen its relationship with the tribes through various exchanges, said Jennifer Karson, Whitman College NAGPRA consultant. The Maxey Museum, for example, is looking into ways to develop closer ties with the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute. In recent years, almost every semester a Whitman class has traveled to the Institute in order to deepen students’ understandings about the local Native peoples.

Minthorn also believes that educational opportunities for students can develop out of this relationship. “It is important that Whitman or any institute for that matter have a policy in place which remains and continues to educate. The policy can’t capture sensitivities or sacredness but it can guide staff on how to work with Tribes, and also how to be more open to cultural practices of Native people.”

The National Park Service is the Federal Agency which oversees NAGPRA on a national level. Colleges, universities, and museums are obliged to inventory Native American ancestral remains, funerary objects or other objects of cultural patrimony within their collections and send those inventories to the NAGPRA federal register. The initial inventory of the Maxey Museum’s collection took place in the mid-1990s. Several tribes were notified of items in the collection that fall under NAGPRA regulations. The Umatilla Tribes were the first group to make a claim for repatriation. A back-and-forth process took place which has resulted in the conclusion of these particular claims. Other repatriations may follow with other tribes as the museum continues to reach out to these communities. Whitman College and its Museum considers it important that concerned tribal groups realize that we are receptive to ensuring the repatriation of objects falling under NAGPRA to the determined culturally affiliated group after claims have been settled pursuant to the provisions of NAGPRA, said Dott and Karson.


Contacts: Brian Dott, associate professor of history and director of the Maxey Museum;


Jennifer Karson, Whitman College’s NAGPRA Consultant