UT’s Texas Archaeological Research Laboratory must return ancestral remains

Kaitlin Burns Passafiume

Imagine your great-grandparents’ graves are upturned, and their remains are unearthed to build a fence or maybe a ticket booth. Official law has validated requests for their reburial, but these requests are denied. Their bodies are collections in a museum. Their bones are artifacts of archaeological research.

It’s a horrific thought, which is why the Texas Penal Code prevents just this sort of an act.

However, consistent with Texas’ history of treating its indigenous groups as less than human, over 3,400 ancestors of original groups have been disturbed from what should have been their final resting place. Before, they lay carefully buried in customary tradition. Now, they sit in the aseptic cabinets of archaeological research labs.

Over 2,000 ancestral remains can be found at UT’s Texas Archaeological Research Laboratory (TARL), on the J.J. Pickle Research Campus. 

The lab should repatriate ancestral remains to their original groups so that they may receive the proper burial required by their sets of beliefs and traditions. This act could both contest the unequal treatment of indigenous groups and serve as a step in repairing a history of mistreatment, removal and extermination.

According to the TARL’s website, “The disposition of human remains and associated objects affiliated with particular Native American Tribes will be determined by each tribe.” 

This vague language seems to suggest that each original group determines the fate of their ancestors. While this should be the case according to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, Mario Garza of the Miakan-Garza band of the Coahuiltecan people said that TARL has refused to return remains due to his group’s lack of federal recognition. 

This is despite NAGPRA’s statement on their website that “there are some cases in which nonfederally recognized tribes may be appropriate claimants for cultural items,” which includes human remains or artifacts. According to Garza, 11 nonfederally recognized tribes like his own have gotten remains through NAGPRA.

NAGPRA has placed responsibility on museums and federal institutions in returning cultural items of the original groups of the U.S. So why then does UT’s TARL continue to refuse the requests of Garza and other indigenous groups?

According to TARL, the institution has received conflicting claims for the same remains, and these disputes should be resolved between such groups. Garza responded that this policy has never been communicated to him or his organization and that he was unaware of any conflicting claims. TARL additionally did not offer details about the identity of the conflicting group.

Garza and his people, originally from the San Marcos area, know all too well how difficult this bureaucratic struggle can be. Along with his wife María Rocha, he founded the Indigenous Cultures Institute in 2006, an organization dedicated to preserving the culture of Texas’ original peoples while maintaining their covenant to sacred sites.

“We generally believe that when a person dies, only the physical body dies, but the spirit does not die. It continues on a spiritual journey,” Garza said. “When the remains are removed, it interrupts that spiritual journey of the individual, and the spirit is out there in some type of limbo. We believe the remains should not be bothered at all to start with. If it is removed, the remains need to be repatriated and hopefully as close as possible to the original site.”

TARL claims that they applaud and support efforts to resolve claim disputes between Texas’ originary groups. However, Garza said that talks have stopped.

Students and UT affiliates who want to stand in solidarity with the fight for the return of ancestral remains to original groups should contact TARL with their requests. 

“I think that if they would receive 1,000 letters from students, they would realize there are more than two people fighting for this,” Garza said. Additionally, students can become involved with the Indigenous Cultures Institute.

The individuals that first inhabited Texas deserve equal legal protection, and UT should do its part to ensure this. 

“I don’t see it as a Native American issue, I see it as a human issue — a human rights issue,” Garza said. “We need support from everybody.”

Burns Passafiume is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.