Repatriation and NAGPRA

NAGPRA was a law enacted in 1990 that describes the rights that tribes have regarding human remains and cultural items “with which they can show a relationship of lineal descent or cultural affiliation” (National Park Services). NAGPRA is used in repatriating ancestors and their belongings back into the ground after being kept in museums and universities. The process of reclaiming one’s ancestors includes consultations between organizations and tribes, creating inventories of artifacts, proof of cultural affiliation, and eventually repatriation.

Kaats’ and Brown Bear Totem Pole that is on display at the Peabody Museum in the NAGPRA Gallery.

“‘Cultural affiliation’ means that there is a relationship of shared group identity which can be reasonably traced historically or prehistorically” (National Park Services). Many tribes have a hard time proving lineage. Since many tribes were put into reservations that weren’t their own, they can’t prove that an artifact or ancestor is their own. Present day tribes are different from tribes that these ancestors may have been from. In the 19th century during forced assimilation and removal policies, many tribes were combined or gotten rid of all together. This means that the ancestor’s tribe may no longer exist in its original form. When an ancestor can’t be places into a current tribe, the land where the person or cultural object is found is said to belong to whichever tribe owns that land.

Just because NAGPRA was created, doesn’t mean that all objects and human remains were given back easily. Many times petitions and claims to ancestors can be denied or postponed. Since the burden of proof to show cultural affiliation lies on tribes, the process to prove ancestry can take years and years. Although this law is the first step in helping return what was taken from Native Americans, it is only the first step. University and museum officials don’t always have accurate reports on their inventory and sometimes discredit tribes’ attempts to repatriate their ancestors. Due to the excessive red tape, some tribes won’t officially claim lineage because they want to get their ancestors back where they belong quicker.

I had never thought about the ethical or moral issues with keeping remains and artifacts for scientific study. It seemed to make sense from my point of view. When I look at repatriation through the lens of the people who are being scientifically studied, I immediately recognize ethical issues. This discussion reminds me of the keeping of Ota Benga, a Mbuti pygmy, in a human exhibit in the Bronx Zoo as well as in an anthropological exhibit in the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St. Louis, MO. It was justified at the time, because it was seen as furthering knowledge on people from Africa. The issue with this is the idea that there is a distinction between people from Africa and people from European descent that needs to be studied. This is the same with universities and museums holding onto Native American cultural items and ancestors. It was justified because at the time they were seen as an “other” that needed to be studied. Today we can recognize that they are people and studying their remains is unnecessary. Repatriation and NAGPRA is currently not only helping return Native American remains and cultural objects back to the ground, but inherent racism that began when Europeans first arrived to the New World.

Walking repatriated cultural objects and ancestors to the burial ceremony.

Further Reading:


February 27, 2017 Lecture by Shannon Martin hosted by Vassar College

1 thought on “Repatriation and NAGPRA

  1. Although NAGPRA has been a step in the right direction, what is a tribe supposed to do to obtain the thousands of artifacts and ancestors that went overseas to international locations?

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