Fairbanks, Alaska - Representatives from the Siberian Yup'ik villages of Gambell and Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea were in Fairbanks recently to pack and return the remains of 386 of their ancestors for reburial. The project is part of the University of Alaska Museum's compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) passed by Congress in 1990. This was the UA Museum's first repatriation of human remains to Alaska Natives and the first return of remains in the U.S. to St. Lawrence Island.
Otto Geist, the museum's early founder, sought evidence for the origins of Native Americans in Alaska and collected many artifacts from the island, which is 40 miles from the coast of Siberia.
Archaeologists like Geist have focused on St. Lawrence Island because there are cultural connections on both sides of the Bering Strait and the island is likely to have been part of a prehistoric migration route between Asia and North America. The remains and artifacts Geist excavated in the 1920s and 1930s forms the basis of the UA Museum's archaeology collections.
Gary Selinger, Special Projects Manager, is coordinating the UA Museum's repatriation program. He says the repatriation is a positive development in establishing new partnerships and collaborations with Alaska Native communities.
"Some people thought NAGPRA's passage was negative - that museums would be raided and collections lost," Selinger said.
"But the result has been beneficial to the museum and the university. We're bringing a lot of Native Elders and representatives from the villages into the museum. Native students are working with the elders and are actively helping in repatriation activities. These relationships are really going to grow in the future as a result."
For the past several years, the UA Museum has been working with Alaska Native communities to coordinate the return of Native American human remains and associated funerary objects to the tribal groups with whom they are affiliated.
"I'm very pleased to be doing the right thing in returning remains of deceased people to their proper burial grounds," said UA Museum Director Aldona Jonaitis. "The museum has always worked to form partnerships with Alaska Native communities, and this is a very special continuation of that effort."
The UA Museum holds more than 9,600 Native American ethnographic objects and about 750,000 archaeological artifacts. Ranked as one of the state's top tourist attractions, the museum serves as a federal repository for archaeological collections from Alaska.