Shannon Martin addresses Native American remains at GVSU

Riley Collins

The issues faced by Native American tribes nationwide rarely come to the surface during political debates. Due to recent events like the Standing Rock, North Dakota controversy, generations of native people are making their voices heard.

One of these voices includes Shannon Martin, director of the Ziibiwing Cultural Center and tribal citizen of the Gun Lake Pottawatomi. For years, Martin has been fighting the uncovering and holding of Native American ancestral remains by public and private U.S institutions.

She visited Grand Valley State University Tuesday, Nov. 1 to discuss the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a vital piece of legislation passed in 1990 that works to end this injustice faced by Native Americans.

“NAGPRA has helped bring home close to 200,000 Native American ancestral remains that were languishing in various universities, federal repositories and museums across the country,” Martin said.

Although painstaking progress has been made after years of appealing to executives from universities who claim to be multicultural and inclusive, she said there’s still a long way to go.

“The program has been in place for 25 years and some institutions still aren’t in compliance,” Martin said. “The destruction of our ancestors’ remains was still happening two years ago.”

Though awareness has greatly increased at the university level, many universities, along with museums and other federal institutions, remain unfazed.

“NAGPRA is one of those pieces in this which, since it’s not at the forefront of media news, falls on the back-burner,” said Kristie Scanlon, assistant director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs.

During her presentation, Martin gave the audience a mix of statistics that expressed the triumphs and pitfalls of NAGPRA. There are still 5,000 boxes of ancestral remains on shelves that continue to be utilized for DNA testing, and even if returned to their tribes eventually, the remains inside have been heavily tampered with.

Martin has personally handled thousands of boxed bone fragments belonging to ancestors and put them in “a semblance of respect” before being recommitted to the Earth.

“We say ‘recommitted’ and not ‘reburied,’” Martin said. “They’ve already been buried once.”

GVSU is one university that has long ceased to hold any ancestral remains and funerary objects. However, other academic institutions continue to uncover and claim them from burial grounds and sacred sites nationally while dismissing the pushback from native communities. Despite this, Martin expressed hope for the future of projects associated with NAGPRA.

“There are remains that we’re going to retrieve from Harvard that have been there since 1863,” she said.

For young Native Americans, the struggle to successfully reclaim their ancestors’ remains will not become easier. Sometimes they are thousands of years old, with no record of tribal affiliation. Because of this, some institutions claim that since tribal ties can’t be proven, modern tribes don’t have rights to the remains. In years to come, through oral histories, the argument won’t tip in favor of tribal members.

“Science sometimes dismisses oral history, especially if it’s coming through indigenous lines,” Martin said.

This, paired with the “invisible minority” description given by many to the Native American community, makes a history rich with oral archives and traditions even harder to hear by those who are uninformed.

“A lot of times, Native Americans are talked about in past tense, in the sense that they aren’t here anymore, that they are not statistically significant. Because the population is so small, their voices are sometimes not heard,” Scanlon said.

Both she and Martin advised students to talk about the issues NAGPRA addresses as well as controversies concerning natural resources, such as Standing Rock. Martin also reminded her audience that the events at Standing Rock weren’t just about water, but the ancient burial ground being punctured in order to access it.

According to Martin, grave destruction in the name of science is a grim reality that Native American people face, but protective legislation like NAGPRA has been introduced and the public is starting to take notice. With awareness on the rise, the slow process of ancestral reclamation seems more possible.

“We’re trying to restore our ancestors’ right to rest in peace and NAGPRA helps us to do that,” Martin said.