All posts by thschindelman

Difficulties and Realities of International Repatriation

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.

Exchanging of gifts after return of Katsinam.

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’.

Leader of Hui Mālama successfully receiving iwi kūpuna.

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.

Additional Readings:

Hopi Tribe Fights to Halt French Sales of Sacred Artifacts for Good


Image Sources:

After ‘Shameful’ Auction in Paris, Sacred Katsinam Returned to Hopis





The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969

A diagram showing NEPA’s primary goals.

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) is policy that is somewhat encouraging towards repatriation (especially of land), but also appears to wield more power than it truly does.  NEPA requires those making decisions on permit applications, adopting federal land management actions and constructing highways or other publicly-owned facilities ( to do environmental assessments (EAs), and environmental impact statements (EISs), evaluating the environmental, social, historic, and economic impacts (so, evaluation of the effect on tribes is included in the act)(  This is where the act falls short, however, the evaluation is all that is required – the ability to move forward with the project is not hindered by NEPA in any other way.  NEPA is merely an assessment to create informed opinions, and puts the burden of proof on American Indians.  The provisions in Executive Order 129898 seek to help rectify this, by making environmental justice, especially that affecting, “’minority populations and low-income populations,’ including tribal populations “(  Again, though, this Executive Order does not provide enforcement of doing the right thing when faced with EISs and EAs that suggest alternate construction plans – often with American Indians paying the brunt of businesses’/the government’s indifference.

Supporters protesting  injustice at Standing Rock.

A current example of this is the Dakota Access Pipeline – though the EIS shows the huge potential environmental harm to the Missouri river, as well as harm to the sacred and cultural sites of the Standing Rock Sioux, the Army Corps of Engineers has decided to pursue the project anyway (in the face of the land in question being sold to Dakota Access without the tribe’s consultation – directly in breach of environmental law)(The Dakota Access Pipeline).  Unfortunately, under NEPA it seems that the policy of asking for forgiveness rather than permission seems to be the rule of thumb in concerns to American Indian claims.  Though as easy as it is to view NEPA’s failures, it is still, “the quintessential ‘look before you leap’ requirement” (Throwing Precaution to the Wind) of US environmental law.  NEPA Success Stories shows just how positive an impact the act can have.  Though one of the success stories involved the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation ‘agreeing to disagree’ with the Department of Energy over the interpretation of treaty rights (so, ignoring the tribe’s wishes), other examples showed successful cooperation between tribes and other interested parties, all as a result of NEPA’s statutes.  On its own, NEPA does very little to help with the goal of repatriation and reclamation, but it does serve as a stepping stone in the right direction.


Citations + Further Readings

Official NEPA site links:

Existing Federal Law and the Protection of Sacred Sites: Possibilities and Limitations

The Dakota Access Pipeline: A Legal Environmental Justice Perspective

Image Locations: