Global Initiatives Grant Report – Global Listening Visits of The Commission for the Ethical Treatment of Human Remains (TCETHR), American Anthropological Association

In August 2022 Michael Blakey received a Global Initiatives Grant to build capacity in anthropology through the, "Global Listening Visits of The Commission for the Ethical Treatment of Human Remains (TCETHR), American Anthropological Association." Below is his report.

In establishing the Commission for the Ethical Treatment of Human Remains, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) responded to a call across the field of anthropology for institutional and professional accountability related to human remains in education and research collections, with special attention to standards and guidelines concerning the respectful care for all ancestral remains and their belongings.  Our Commission was charged with assessing legislative, policy, and professional society standards and guidelines.  We also conducted listening sessions globally to understand the ethical, legal, social, and scientific issues related to human remains and cultural materials around the world.  We are grateful to the Wenner-Gren Foundation for supporting our global listening sessions with colleagues and descendant communities in South Africa, Japan, Australia.

The Commission’s mission is to draft an AAA policy to guide anthropologists, museums, and other institutions in how to care for human remains, burial places, and belongings from burials ethically and respectfully by engaging with both researchers and lineal descendants, ancestral communities, descendant communities, and communities of care (understanding that not all communities of care have the same relationships to ancestors).  Being an AAA Commission, our focus is on anthropologists who work at U.S. institutions, but our global listening sessions also raised important questions that help us to address broader contexts.  Our Global Listening sessions were hosted by local colleagues with long histories of work with Indigenous people, and with the question of repatriation in their countries.  We learned both about the extent to which Indigenous and marginalized communities worldwide shared similar experiences and concerns, and about the important issues specific to particular places and times.

Cape Town, South Africa (December 2022): 

This session was organized by Ciraj Rassool (UWC), and it was hosted by colleagues at University of the Western Cape at the Iziko Museums of South Africa.  Those present included representatives from the Iziko Museums, the Department of History at University of the Western Cape, and from the Museological Services at the Western Cape Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport.  There, what was emphasized was the difficulty of claims making in South Africa, a result of the complex historical relationships among “Blackness,” “Africanness,” and “Indigeneity,” especially after 1994.  Colleagues there also drew our attention to the need to link contemporary “race collections” to historical ones.  They made distinctions between a politics of restitution and a politics of repatriation, and argued that returns should empower the receiver, not the giver.  Finally, they raised questions about whether human remains should be identified through human biology or through a process of mourning and recovery.  They asked, what are the stakes in these modes of identification?  Are descent and belonging biological issues, or are they questions of politics and claims, of history and storytelling?

Japan (June-July 2023):

In Japan, meetings were held at the Center for Ainu and Indigenous Studies, Hokkaido University, Osaka University, and Ryukyu University.  One of the issues colleagues and descendant communities identified in this context was that because Japan publicly present itself as constituting only one ethnic group, diversity within the population has not been popularly recognized.  While the Ainu and Ryukyu recognize themselves as Japan’s Indigenous people, the Japanese government only recognizes the Ainu.  We learned that the total remains of Ainu held by Japanese institutions is 1,574.  Problems for repatriation include the inability to identify regional affiliations in some cases.  Some communities were not prepared to accept remains without having rituals for secondary burial.  Both Ainu and Ryukyus reported difficulty getting access to records and said they often needed to hire lawyers to help them work with anthropologists who were stonewalling them.  Some did not see that anthropologists could contribute anything of value to them; others argued that for any research to proceed, “all communication should start with an apology.”

Australia (August 2023):

In Australia, the listening session was hosted by Professor Michael Westaway and sponsored by the University of Queensland.  One of the key issues that emerged had to do with climate change and the need to protect coastal burial sites through collaboration with researchers.  They also argued for training opportunities, and for the need for protocols for moving into a museum space with ancestors.  They complained that white gatekeepers of records and information were restrictive, and they therefore argued that records need to be governed by Indigenous people.  Consultation, they stated, should be replaced with collaboration.  And communities, they said, need to be educated and informed about the benefits and harms of certain methods.  In this regard, they argued that while DNA could be used to help develop provenance for ancestral remains, DNA could also be used by researchers for other purposes.

Across contexts, our interlocutors argued that ancestors should be treated with dignity, and that mortuary belongings should accompany the dead.  With respect to research, they argued that the power to decide must be in the hands of the community, and that researchers must take the necessary time to build relationships.  On the whole, descendants felt that having ancestral remains repatriated would contribute to the restoration of their community identity.  These findings align with what we heard from other colleagues and descendant groups, and they are thus the backbone for our list of principles and recommendations in the policy we will submit to the AAA.  The Commission acknowledges that there is no “solution” that will “fix” the historical legacies of extraction, theft, and disrespect across the discipline.  We recognize that accountability, cooperation, and ethical anthropological practice are practices that must be ongoing, relational, and dynamic.


We also conducted a listening session in Canada (with support from the University of Alberta), and we held virtual listening sessions with colleagues in Canada, Europe and Senegal.  See the AAA website for our interim report, describing the listening sessions in more detail: