Campus News

UK investing nearly $900,000 to expand Native American repatriation effort

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Jan. 13, 2023) — As part of the University of Kentucky’s commitment to and ongoing efforts working with Native nations, the UK College of Arts and Sciences is investing $889,188 in additional funds over the next three years to repatriate the ancestral remains and cultural items of Native Americans in Kentucky. 

The effort, led by new UK Arts and Sciences Dean Ana Franco-Watkins, is an expansion of the university’s commitment to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) program, a federal initiative. 

The investment — the result of a collaboration between the college and the Office of the Provost — will support new personnel and resources, with plans to more than double the current team devoted to the effort, as well as bolster current staffing and resources. 

The mission of UK’s NAGPRA office is to ensure that all Native American and Native Hawaiian human remains and cultural items curated by the William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology at UK are appropriately identified and repatriated in a transparent, respectful and legal manner following meaningful and collaborative consultations with official Tribal representatives as directed by NAGPRA. 

“This significant step forward is a testament to the university’s steadfast commitment to Native nations,” Franco-Watkins said. “Much progress has been made over the past several years but there is more we can and must do to complete the sensitive process of repatriation with transparency, dignity and respect.” 

Franco-Watkins is familiar with this initiative from her work at her previous institution, Auburn University.  

Franco-Watkins said she recognized when she came to UK this past summer that a number of institutions across the country are grappling with how best to continue to make progress in repatriation efforts. 

The dean, with UK’s NAGPRA Coordinator Celise Chilcote-Fricker, has prioritized a sustainable and substantive path forward for a program many institutions struggle to manage. 

Over the past several years, UK’s NAGPRA coordinator has implemented a number of significant initiatives, including: 

  • writing and implementing NAGPRA policies and procedures;
  • instituting a NAGPRA research moratorium;
  • building an NAGPRA osteoarcheology lab;  
  • developing a digital database for ancestral remains and associated funerary objects and sharing it with Native nations;  
  • forming a NAGPRA Advisory Group;  
  • and building positive relationships with Native nations through consultation and collaboration, among other things.  

The program at UK has also been working with the National NAGPRA Program over the past few years on updating its data to continue the important work of repatriation. 

As the land-grant university for the Commonwealth, UK is home to the Kentucky Office of State Archeology and the William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology, which are tasked, respectively, with issuing archeological site numbers and permits for archeological excavations and maintaining site records, and conducting archeological fieldwork, analysis of materials and preservation of cultural heritage. Additionally, the Webb Museum provides skeletal analyses and NAGPRA expertise to external institutions such as coroner and medical examiners’ offices, state parks, heritage councils, historical societies and other museums.  

Nearly a century ago, during the Great Depression, the federal government — as part of the New Deal’s public work projects — funded excavations at archeological sites in Kentucky and across the nation.  

Although these federally funded excavation projects were intended to understand and preserve history threatened by construction, and provide employment to millions during the depression, the work across the country often led to Native American ancestors and cultural items being removed without consent from Native American nations and descendants.  

Discoveries from excavations were then housed in archeological repositories at museums and institutions throughout the U.S., including the Webb Museum. 

“We recognize the pain caused by past practices and continue to work closely with Native nations to return their ancestors and cultural items home in a transparent, respectful and ethical process,” Chilcote-Fricker said. 

Given the size of the NAGPRA collections housed at the Webb Museum, these efforts require extensive expertise, staffing and resources and will take years to complete through a collaborative, thorough process. One critical step in the process is consulting Tribal stakeholders and, understandably, meaningful consultations take time, Chilcote-Fricker added.

Efforts are currently underway to repatriate a large number of ancestors and their belongings in a single multistage project thanks to collaboration with Tribal stakeholders.

UK's NAGPRA program has prioritized transparent communication and meaningful consultation and has regular communication with Native partners about the progress of repatriation.

“We are committed to repatriating all Native American ancestral remains and funerary belongings, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony to Native nations,” Chilcote-Fricker said. “This investment will help make that commitment a reality.” 

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.