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West Texas university working to repatriate Native American remains housed in its research collections

Carlos Morales
Marfa Public Radio
Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas.

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A West Texas university’s effort to repatriate 900-year-old Native American remains housed at one of its research centers took a significant step forward this week, after the university determined that a local man is a “lineal descendant” connected to the remains.

According to a federal government filing published Thursday, Sul Ross State University’s Center for Big Bend Studies has determined that Xoxi Nayapiltzin, who grew up in Alpine and has Indigenous heritage, is ancestrally connected to five people whose remains were unearthed during a construction project in 2006.

The filing said the remains were uncovered when workers for the City of Presidio were digging a trench for a sewer line project.

Bryon Schroeder, the center’s director, said in an interview that he’s not sure how the remains came into the university’s possession.

“There’s not a real good paper trail,” he said.

Connecting the remains to a lineal descendant is a major step in the legal process of repatriating them, which is required by federal law.

Under the 1990 Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), federal agencies and museums that receive federal funding must return Native American cultural items and human remains to Indigenous tribes or direct descendants.

More than three decades after the law was passed, many of those remains are still sitting in cardboard boxes or display cases around the country. According to data compiled by ProPublica in November, of the more than 4,400 remains reported to have been taken from Texas, less than 1,200 have been made available for return. (The federal government does not track how many have actually been returned.) Per ProPublica, Indigenous remains are currently held by museums and universities around the country and the state, including the University of Texas Permian Basin and the University of Texas at El Paso’s Centennial Museum.

In December, the Biden administration implemented new rules meant to streamline the process and strengthen the authority of the tribes involved. More recently, some Democratic lawmakers have complained that the administration has not moved swiftly enough in repatriating remains.

Schroeder said the Center for Big Bend Studies started working to repatriate the remains in its collection long before the new rules went into place, but the changes led to increased support from the federal government.

“They reached out and were like, ‘How do we get this finished?’” he said. “They really helped facilitate that.”

The first step in the NAGPRA process calls for museums to inventory any remains in their possession and consult with Indigenous tribes to determine who could receive them. The law requires institutions to work with federally recognized tribes and direct descendants, but not tribes without federal recognition. That can make the process complicated in Texas, where many Native people are not members of federally recognized tribes.

According to Thursday’s filing, Sul Ross determined that the remains' “geographical affiliation” matches the historical territory of the Mescalero Apache Tribe, a federally recognized tribe. But previous DNA studies had been able to tie similarly aged remains found at nearby sites to Nayapiltzin, making him eligible to request the five remains from the university.

Nayapiltzin has played a significant role in Indigenous-led cultural and historic efforts in the Big Bend, including a high-profile project to preserve a Lipan Apache cemetery in Presidio.

For years, he’s also been involved in an effort to recover remains collected from sites around the region. Nayapiltzin, tribal leaders, and other local descendant families are working to rebury some of them in Presidio.

The ultimate fate of the remains currently at Sul Ross has not yet been decided, since other descendants or tribes can still file a claim for the remains. Thursday’s filing said the remains could be returned “on or after May 13, 2024.”

In an interview, Nayapiltzin said he’s energized by the broader repatriation efforts underway in West Texas.

“I’m happy that we’ll be able to rebury our ancestors back in the same area they were taken from,” he said.

At Sul Ross, Schroeder said he’s hopeful that this is the last time the Center for Big Bend Studies will be involved in the process of returning remains.

“I wish we wouldn’t have had them [in the first place]. But at the same time, the discipline is changing, and we’re part of that change,” he said. “It’s just the right way to go.”

Annie Rosenthal is Marfa Public Radio's Border Reporter and a Report for America corps member.