Ask Shelby Tisdale about major accomplishments at Fort Lewis College’s Center of Southwest Studies in the last six years, and you’ll get a one-word answer: NAGPRA.
“Bringing the college into compliance with NAGPRA,” Tisdale said, has been a top priority in her strategic plan as the center’s director. “When I came here in February 2016, there was a concern about so much change in leadership and where we stood on NAGPRA. Early on, the staff and I developed a five-year strategic plan. And despite COVID, we’ve accomplished a lot – most importantly – compliance with NAGPRA.”
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was enacted by Congress in 1990. The law requires institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony to affiliated American Indian tribes. It’s a complicated process, Tisdale said, requiring identification of objects, consultation with tribes and agreement about repatriation procedures. The center, like many American institutions, has acquired Native American artifacts through donations over the years. Honoring NAGPRA guidelines while mounting exhibitions, developing public programming, supporting scholarship and encouraging student engagement at the center has been Tisdale’s through line.
“Over the last six years, the college has come close to being in compliance with the law, first with human remains and collection items, which came to the center from various sources,” she said. “Subsequently, we’ve processed what are termed ‘culturally unaffiliated items’ as well. These are objects where we don’t have the remains associated with the objects.”
Every step in repatriation is sensitive, Tisdale said. And she strongly credited retired FLC Anthropology professor Kathy Fine-Dare for her expertise and partnership in consulting with various tribes.
“At the end of this November this huge project will almost have been complete,” Tisdale said. “I have felt I personally had a stake in this. We are a Native American-serving college. I want to see that the college has gone beyond NAGPRA guidelines to be in compliance. It’s the right thing to do.”
In 2020, Tisdale’s commitment stretched beyond the FLC campus. She joined the seven-member National NAGPRA Review Committee. Before COVID_19, it met several times a year in person and now convenes virtually. Members are nominated by Native American tribes or religious leaders, national museum or science organizations. Tisdale was nominated by the American Alliance of Museums and appointed by the secretary of the Interior. The committee reviews and monitors the implementation of the law. Her term will continue after she retires from FLC.
“I’m honored to be on this national committee,” Tisdale said. “The public has access to our meetings. Just go to the NAGPRA website to find the date and the agenda. We are an advisory group. We make a ‘finding of fact,’ and we can make recommendations. Nov. 12 and 23 will be our next public sessions. I’m so glad to be part of this on a national level.
“When the law was first implemented, Congress thought it would take 10 years to complete the process, Now, 31 years later, we realize there is still a lot to do,” she said.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.