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The Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology at Columbia University is committed to the ethical pursuit of knowledge, and the responsible stewardship of that which is entrusted to our custodial care including human and non-human skeletal remains.

To that end, in concert with the Department of Anthropology (the original custodians of these remains) we are engaged in an ongoing process of identifying and inventorying remains on site, consulting with relevant professional and cultural organizations and authorities to determine provenance, and working to ensure the well-being and, where appropriate, repatriation.

We are guided in our efforts by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), and by international treaties, professional protocols, and our own commitments to just and responsible research practice.

In 1990, Congress enacted the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).  It requires institutions receiving federal funds to report any Native American human remains, associated or unassociated funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony that are held. NAGPRA both acknowledges the rights of lineal descendants, Native American tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations to the return of human remains and certain cultural items, and provides a mechanism to do this. Lineal descendants, tribal chairpersons, or authorized NAGPRA representatives of federally recognized tribes can make claims under this act.

In 2002, the Department of Anthropology inventoried a collection of human remains from Okiedan Butte, and Sheyenne-Cheyenne Site in Ransom County ND, and On-A-Slant Village (site 32MO26), Morton County, ND.  In 1938, excavations led by William Duncan Strong and jointly sponsored by Columbia University and the State Historical Society of North Dakota removed these remains during excavations.  Strong brought the human remains to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) where they were placed on “permanent loan.”  In January 2002, researchers at Columbia University conducted a detailed assessment of the human remains,  and the AMNH subsequently transferred them to the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University.  As the study of biological anthropology (with its expertise in human osteology) moved to the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology with its founding, the remains from Okiedan Butte, Sheyenne-Cheyenne, and On-A-Slant-Village, along with other human and non-human skeletal remains, came under the care of this department.

In compliance with NAGPRA, the Department of Anthropology published notices on the federal registrar and notified representatives of the following tribes: Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, Montana; Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, Oklahoma; Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, South Dakota; Crow Creek Sioux Tribe of the Crow Creek Reservation, South Dakota; Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe of South Dakota; Lower Brule Sioux Tribe of the Lower Brule Reservation, South Dakota; Northern Cheyenne Tribe of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, Montana; Oglala Sioux Tribe, South Dakota; Rosebud Sioux Tribe of the Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota; Santee Sioux Nation, Nebraska; Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North & South Dakota, Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold Reservation, North Dakota; and the Yankton Sioux Tribe of South Dakota.  None of the aforementioned groups or any group that has permission under NAGPRA to claim these remains has requested repatriation.

In the summer of 2023, the Departments of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology and Anthropology, conducted additional outreach to the nations/tribes listed above to reiterate the university commitment to repatriation if that was desired.  There are no requests for repatriation at this time.

As such, Columbia has an obligation to care for these remains until there is a request.  We follow all NAGPRA guidelines as well as professional standards regarding the ethical and respectful treatment of these and all of the human skeletal remains in our custodial care.

More information see the federal register:

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