Of roughly 3,900 American Indian objects in Kansas University's collections, up to a dozen will be returned to their tribes.
"If the process goes smoothly, we can repatriate most of them in the next three to four months," said Thomas Foor, a University of Montana emeritus professor of anthropology. KU hired Foor in January to oversee repatriation of artifacts to their rightful owners under a federal law.
KU acquired the items over the years from faculty who gathered pieces in their research and from outside donors.
Thus far, Foor has returned a sacred mask to a tribe in Ontario, Canada. He has catalogued KU's collection and notified 200 different groups about what artifacts they may wish to get back. Foor predicts that about a dozen artifacts will be returned, though that number could change as the process continues.
The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, established the process for the return of human remains, funerary and sacred objects and pieces of cultural patrimony.
Foor came to KU months after a group of students argued the university was neglecting the artifacts, housed in the former museum of anthropology in Spooner Hall.
The museum closed in 2002 to save KU money and is now called Anthropological Research and Cultural Collections.
More about the artifacts
Bobbi Rahder, a lecturer of Indigenous Museum Studies whose students voiced concerns about the artifacts, said she viewed Foor's hiring as a positive step.
"It's very exciting to me that they're making a commitment to fulfilling their NAGPRA obligations and they're taking this seriously," she said.
But she hopes KU has a plan for the long-term needs of the collection.
"We are doing the best we can," said Mary Adair, interim director of Anthropological Research and Cultural Collections. "We are listening to what the tribes are telling us. We are responding to their requests. We're doing the best we can."
Adair said the budget includes one permanent part-time collection manager position - a post that's now vacant, but that KU plans to fill. And she said students work as curatorial assistants.
Foor is not working with human remains in KU's collections. Those are handled through a separate process. KU is unable to identify what tribes are affiliated with the bones it holds at this point, Adair said. She said the university is waiting for the regulatory guidelines outlining the process of returning culturally unaffiliated remains before it moves forward.
"The university would like to be proactive in repatriating the remains," she said. "The law does not currently allow us to return them to just any tribe."