AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Archeological Research Lab holds more than 2,400 remains of indigenous people who inhabited the land of Texas millennia ago. Now, The Miakan-Garza Band of the Coahuiltecan tribe says some belong to them.

“It is racist and unconscionable to keep the stolen remains of our ancestors as your “collections” in cardboard boxes on row after row of steel shelving, inside a secluded warehouse in north Austin,” Dr. Mario Garza, the Cultural Preservation Officer of the Miakan-Garza Band of Texas, wrote in a letter to UT’s Interim President Jay Hartzell. “We write to ask you to please help our people by returning three stolen Native American remains—our ancestors—so that we may rebury them.”

The Miakan-Garza Band first requested the university to transfer possession of three remains they believe belong to its Coahuiltecan ancestors in 2016. This summer, the lab denied the request.

“The law requires that certain standards be met, and in this case, the known facts do not offer grounds for the requested repatriation,” said a university spokesman for the College of Liberal Arts, which oversees the research lab. “Without specific information connecting the remains to the Miakan-Garza Band, TARL cannot provide them the remains, particularly over the objections of other tribes.”

The dispute arises, because the remains are designated as “culturally unidentifiable”—that is, the remains are over 1,000 years old and no archaeological evidence can confidently connect them to any living tribe. Unlike many other remains, the bones in question were not buried with any artifacts or other markers of cultural affiliation. 

Maria Rocha of the Indigenous Cultures Institute in San Marcos disagrees with the university’s assessment. She says the date range of the remains and some historical math suggest they are Coahuiltecan.

“If you look at 1,000-year-old remains here from Hays County, the only native people who have been in Hays County for over 14,000 years is our people,” she said in an interview. “We may not be lineal descendants of these remains, but they belong to the Coahuiltecan people, because they were the only Indians here 1,000 years ago… The math shows that those are our people.”

The pair spoke to UT’s Student Government Assembly on Sept. 8, and 37 student leaders signed an open letter to the president in support of the Miakan-Garza Band.

“Returning the ancestral human remains to the Miakan-Garza band is a historic opportunity to shift broader conversations around institutional responsibilities to Indigenous communities,” the letter stated. “We hope The University of Texas at Austin is up to the task of leading decolonial practices and being on the right side of history on this matter.”

Repatriation requests involve a slew of legal, scientific and bureaucratic barriers. The process implicates the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, or NAGPRA, which sets strict guidelines for who can claim entitlement to remains.

The university says two other tribes, the Caddo Nation and the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe, dissented to handing over the remains to the Miakan-Garza Band.

“It’d be very difficult for us to turn the remains over to Miakan-Garza when we have two federally recognized tribes also interested in that same area,” the university spokesman said. “We are charged with making an independent evaluation of the facts before us… Whether you’re recognized or not, we have to work through the process NAGPRA set forth.”

Dr. Garza disagrees with that assessment of the facts and claims the university is improperly favoring tribes with federal recognition.

“No other tribe wants these three remains. That is not true,” he said. “In the letter from those two tribes, they don’t say, ‘they shouldn’t get [the remains], because they don’t belong to them,’ they say, ‘they shouldn’t get them, because they are not federally recognized’… They say, ‘They’re not real Indians.’”

The communications director for UT administration did not respond to a request for comment. 

It is unclear what the future holds for the three sets of remains in the Texas Archeological Research Lab, but the Miakan-Garza Band says their goal is not necessarily for them to gain ownership, but to find any compromise necessary to return the remains back to the soil.

“We believe that the physical body needs to become part of Mother Earth again,” Dr. Garza said. “If you disrupt that, then you disrupt the spiritual journey of the remains. So what is wrong with any tribe who wants to rebury the remains from where they were removed? If we are able to recover these remains from UT, we will be setting in motion the ability for other communities to go ahead and do that as well. And hopefully all those remains will be reburied eventually. Those are our hopes and dreams for the future.”