The University’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology failed to adequately consult the Narragansett Indian Tribe about the museum’s possession of 10 human remains and 24 funerary objects associated with the Narragansett, according to John Brown, historic preservation officer for the Narragansett Indian Tribe.
Under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, museums that hold the human remains and funerary objects of Native Americans must inventory and attempt to identify the cultural affiliation of the remains in consultation with the associated Native American tribes. Afterward, they must release a public notice about the inventory before repatriating the remains and objects to their associated tribes.
Appropriate consultations did not take place between the Narragansett and the Haffenreffer before the museum released a 2018 notice identifying the remains of 10 Narragansett individuals — which stated that they consulted the Tribe — John Brown said. And following that notice, the museum offered limited communication about the identification of the remains to the Narragansett, John Brown added.
The Haffenreffer previously believed that two meetings between the museum and the tribe — one in 1995 and the other in 1997 — served as consultations, wrote Robert Preucel, director of the Haffenreffer, in an email to The Herald. But the museum has learned that the Tribe “believes that the consultation was inadequate,” Preucel wrote.
Preucel declined to publicly comment regarding the Haffenreffer’s present understanding of the meetings.
Earlier this week, the Haffenreffer Museum apologized to John Brown and the Historic Preservation Office and requested a formal consultation with the Tribe regarding the remains and objects, John Brown said. Preucel confirmed this apology in an email to The Herald. The museum hopes to move forward with the repatriation process “as expeditiously as possible,” Preucel wrote.
A missing ‘standard process of review’
The NAGPRA states that Native American tribes can request that museums and federal agencies holding “Native American human remains and associated funerary objects” return the remains and objects to the Tribe if the remains have an established tribal affiliation.
That affiliation is established by museums and federal agencies in a legally mandated inventory of the remains and objects they hold, along with their “geographical and cultural identity.” While creating the inventory, museums and federal agencies must work “in consultation with tribal government,” according to the law — and then notify the tribes with identified remains.
John Brown said that repatriation involves a “standard process of review,” including opportunities for tribal representatives to ask about the details of burials, see photographic evidence, view the holdings in person and “see the general lay of the land.”
While John Brown said he participated in the 1995 and 1997 meetings with University NAGPRA Coordinator Thierry Gentis, he did not consider them a consultation, even though the Haffenreffer’s 2018 notice stated that it assessed the holdings “in consultation with representatives of the Narragansett Indian Tribe.”
Gentis did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the meetings with John Brown and the Narragansett.
The Haffenreffer still holds the remains of at least 99 unidentified Native Americans, according to a Dec. 9 report by ProPublica based on public data from the National Park Service.
‘A museum … in the state of Rhode Island did not know how to reach us’
John Brown and Chief Sachem Anthony Stanton said they only received two emails from the Haffenreffer attempting to make them aware of the 2018 notice: one in 2018 to Stanton and another in 2021 to John Brown. Neither of the emails were reviewed by their intended recipients, Stanton and John Brown said.
After posting the notice, Preucel wrote that the Haffenreffer contacted Narragansett Chief Sachem Anthony Stanton. In an email to Chief Sachem’s office sent Sept. 12, 2018, and reviewed by The Herald, Gentis forwarded Stanton a link to the notice and received a response attributed to the chief thanking him.
Stanton told The Herald that he did not personally receive the email and that the reply could have been sent by anyone in the chief’s office. Additionally, he noted that he did not have the internal authority to acknowledge the notice of the remains. John Brown confirmed that he — not Stanton — holds the authority to acknowledge the notice as the Tribe’s historic preservation officer.
Preucel wrote that the museum later learned the Tribe “did not see (the museum’s) communications.”
Gentis did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the email sent to Stanton.
In a following email from Preucel to John Brown sent Oct. 22, 2021 that was reviewed by The Herald, Preucel followed up regarding the Haffenreffer’s possession of the remains and asked how to proceed. Brown told The Herald that he missed the museum’s email.
Brown, who said he has worked with over 100 institutions regarding repatriation, said that most other institutions have not struggled to contact him.
He added that given the Tribe’s proximity to the Haffenreffer and his publicly available contact information, he is easily accessible.
“The museums in Washington, D.C. know how to reach me,” he said. “The federal agencies know how to reach me. I find it interesting that a museum located in the state of Rhode Island did not know how to reach us. What are we, a 30 (or) 40-minute drive?”
‘Too little and too late’
Ma’iingan Wolf Garvin ’25, a member of the Hoocąk Nation and Bad River Ojibwe and co-coordinator for Natives at Brown, told The Herald that any museum holding Native American remains is “disgusting (and) shocking to me in so many ways.”
Wolf Garvin noted that the details of the University’s holdings, published in the ProPublica report, are “especially hard-hitting because of how specific the numbers are.”
“Over and over I hear with the issue of repatriation, ‘We don’t know where it’s going to go, and we don’t know who to talk to,’ ” she said. “Well, have you even tried reaching out to a single Native person? A relationship with Native people is imperative.”
Preucel told The Herald that the Haffenreffer is “doing everything we can to repatriate all of the human remains” in the museum’s holdings. He said that the Haffenreffer is currently working with Bernstein and Associates, a NAGPRA consulting firm, in its repatriation process.
He also said that museums that hold Native American remains, including the Haffenreffer, “really have to do better,” noting that the Haffenreffer’s repatriation process is limited by the number of staff members it employs and their capacity.
“We’re dealing with the painful legacy of our field of anthropology,” Preucel said, referring to the repatriation process. “And it’s something we are all taking very seriously today.”
John Brown said that it “will remain to be seen” whether the Haffenreffer follows through with the repatriation process following this week’s apology, highlighting the long period without correspondence between the two organizations.
“It takes 30 years to do the right thing?” Brown said. “This is too little and too late.”
Neil Mehta is the editor-in-chief and president of the Brown Daily Herald's 134th editorial board. They study public health and statistics at Brown. Outside the office, you can find Neil baking and playing Tetris.