The Department of Anthropology’s Commitment to the Respectful Treatment of Human Remains
The ethical treatment of human remains stored in departments of anthropology is an issue that is of shared deep concern in our profession, academic institutions, and the broader public. The Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington has held human remains for several decades, and we have an ongoing commitment to take actions to assure the respectful treatment of these remains. These include repatriation of remains of Native Americans, the return of forensic remains to proper authorities, and a long-term and continued commitment to addressing ethics, including the ethical treatment of human remains, in our teaching.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed in 1990, is a law that calls for the return of human remains or cultural objects excavated from federal or tribal lands to their federally recognized tribe. Upon the passage of this law, the Department of Anthropology began an evaluation of all human skeletal remains held in the biological anthropology collection created by Prof. Daris Swindler, who was a faculty member from 1969- 1991.
This review was begun by paleontologist Prof. Gerald Eck, who served as NAGPRA coordinator until his retirement in 2007. Thereafter, this position has been held by Prof. Patricia Kramer. In total, remains from more than 25 individuals were able to be identified as Native American, listed on the NAGPRA database, and delivered to the Burke Museum. Professor Kramer began a long-term collaboration with the Burke Museum curators and staff on the process of repatriating the culturally unidentifiable Native American human skeletal remains to the appropriate tribal entities. This includes closely working with tribal Elders and other leaders to determine an appropriate process of transitioning custody of the skeletal remains from the UW to the tribal groups. With the exception of one case, which is not culturally identifiable and remains in the custody of the Burke museum, the Native American skeletal remains have now been repatriated.
In a former era of criminal investigation techniques, forensic anthropologists were consulted for the examination of human remains, and Prof. Swindler was one such person. He assisted in the examination of victims of the Green River Killer (Gary Ridgeway) and Ted Bundy. In some instances of “cold cases,” he was asked to archive the skeletal remains. In 2008, the Department of Anthropology was contacted by the Yakima Police Department about the skeletal remains from an unsolved case from the 1970’s. Forensic anthropologist Katherine Taylor, from the King County Medical Examiner’s Office, was brought in to look through the archive. While the skeletal remains from the Yakima case were not found, the remains from eight individuals from unsolved cases were identified and then transferred to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office. The UW put out a public statement about this in 2009: https://web.archive.org/web/20101201103152/http://uwnews.org/article.as… Today, all requests received by the Department to identify human skeletal remains are referred to local law enforcement authorities and/or the Medical Examiner’s Office.
In addition to decolonizing our collections, we also address NAGPRA and the respectful treatment of human remains in our teachings on ethics. For example, in Autumn 2020 the biological anthropology (BIO A) subdiscipline included a graduate seminar on ethics that discussed respectful treatment of human remains. Every BIO A course covers relevant issues on ethics, including NAGPRA regulations as well as many other topics. As a research and teaching unit, the Department takes seriously its role in teaching ethics in biological anthropology and the social justice and human rights positions behind it. In this way, we train the next generation of scientists to have a commitment to ethical practice that extends beyond the UW.