While NAGPRA has done a lot for the American Repatriation movement, it does have some major flaws. One repatriation that NAGPRA does not address is international repatriation of Native American objects and remains. This poses a real problem for any tribes whose ancestors or sacred objects are abroad, especially because just how much is out there is unknown. When repatriation across borders does take place, it can become very tricky, very quickly.
In a recent case, a ceremonial shield of the Acoma Pueblo was being auctioned at the EVE auction house in Paris. Domestically, there are laws in place to help protect these items from dealers, but these do not apply to foreign territories.
And while the hope is that cases like these will become more infrequent, it does not seem likely. In 2013 and 2014, similar French auction houses put Hopi Katsinam up for sale, with French courts backing auction houses against Native Americans. Negative publicity did help return some of the masks, but the overarching difficulties of international repatriation are still very present.
A common problem with international repatriation of Native American objects/remains is that the withholding institution gets to call the shots. For 23 years, the British Natural History Museum stalled and avoided repatriating hundreds of Native Hawaiian iwi kūpuna because of reasons like information on ‘specimens’ being classified and only available to ‘true scientists’.
After a long process, and even the passing of an act (2004 Human Tissues Act), the repatriation group Hui Mālama was able to get 145 iwi kūpuna permanently released.
Though international repatriation is heavily reliant on the cooperation of the withholding institutions, there are some applicable international statutes that can be used during international repatriation processes. The United Nations Charter makes it clear that not cooperating with repatriation claims is a violation of human rights. Furthermore, the U.N. supports international repatriation through the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, acknowledging indigenous people’s rights outside of just their respective countries (UNDRIP is now recognized by all United Nations members). UNDRIP specifically acknowledges that indigenous people have rights to the repatriation of remains. Another often used statute that deals with objects is the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law’s 1995 Convention, specifically including indigenous peoples in their concern for treatment of cultural objects.
Tools do exist for assisting Native Americans with international repatriation, but the same problems under NAGPRA (and some prior to the act) must be overcome. Competing interests with foreign governments and institutions make repatriation difficult, not to mention the lack of knowledge of international collection itineraries. Even operating at an international scale is not easy for many tribes with small repatriation operations, or occupied with domestic repatriation. International repatriation for Native Americans may be difficult, but is possible, and hopefully in the coming years will become more refined and efficient.