National Environmental Policy Act of 1969

The National Policy Act from 1969 was an environmental law that was put in place to advocate for the enhancement of the environment and helped establish the President’s Council on Environmental Quality. The part of this law that affected Native Americans was section 101(b) which made sure the federal agencies had to be aware of the cultural impacts on historic (Native American) sites before they did anything to disrupt them.


The NEPA section 101(b) states:

In order to carry out the policy set forth in this Act, it is the continuing responsibility of the Federal Government to use all practicable means, consist with other essential considerations of national policy, to improve and coordinate Federal plans, functions, programs, and resources to the end that the Nation may

  1. fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations;
  2. assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and aesthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings;
  3. attain the widest range of beneficial uses of the environment without degradation, risk to health or safety, or other undesirable and unintended consequences;
  4. preserve important historic, cultural, and natural aspects of our national heritage, and maintain, wherever possible, an environment which supports diversity, and variety of individual choice;
  5. achieve a balance between population and resource use which will permit high standards of living and a wide sharing of life’s amenities; and
  6. enhance the quality of renewable resources and approach the maximum attainable recycling of depletable resources.

(For full NEPA text click here)

This piece of legislation although with good intentions was really more of just a “procedural policy” made to inform the federal agencies of its environmental impacts than to outright stop them. This means that they just have to have fully informed decisions about the impacts that certain public works projects would have. It does not necessarily guarantee the safety for these sites, even if they are acknowledged as significant cultural places.


“Although NEPA does not always produce favorable decisions or champion tribal causes, many tribes are involved with the federal process. Unlike other federal statutes, NEPA is triggered by a broad range of federal actions. Given that NEPA casts such a wide net, it is inevitable that NEPA reviews frequently involve tribal lands and resources. Even though the execution of NEPA leaves much to be desired, its very existence presents tribes with opportunities that might ix NEPA/TEPA Guide for Native American Communities otherwise not exist. It carves one of many needed communication channels in the dynamic and ever-evolving relationship between sovereign tribal governments and agencies of the federal government.” (A Comprehensive Guide For AMERICAN INDIAN and ALASKA NATIVE Communities


Also, with this legislation, the burden of proof to protect these important cultural sights fell again onto Native American tribes. If they didn’t want a highway or some other public works project to demolish a sacred sight for them, they had to provide the evidence that this place was infact an “important historic, cultural, and natural aspects of our national heritage”. While a reasonable request for the tribes to have to provide evidence to support their sacred land claim, the claims weren’t always granted. This makes many Native American tribes wary to disclose important cultural sights to the American government because of all the times they have been burned in the past.


An Idle No More rally to save Indian Heritage School was held May 15, 2013 at the Seattle School District offices. Was not successful.



Another problem with this piece of legislation is that it does nothing to help the Native peoples repatriate other important sites which the government had taken from them previously. This law is to simply help preserve their cultural sites, which puts the emphasis on the history of these places instead of focusing on the tribal members still alive today. It reiterates the false theme in America’s legislation of Native Americans that they are dead or going and all we can do to help is to preserve their history in order to remember them. Most American legislation on Native Americans is not about helping and making up to the living members still alive today for all the crimes that have been committed against their people.



Larkspur, California a burial site over 4,500 years old containing 600 human bodies was annihilated for the construction of a housing complex. This is it after it was paved over

Further Reading: (when NEPA 101(b) was used in a lawsuit) (legislation guide for Tulalip Tribes of Washington: “A Comprehensive Guide For AMERICAN INDIAN and ALASKA NATIVE Communities”)



The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act stemmed from numerous protests in the 1970s against the U.S. government’s discrimination of religious and cultural practices and the infringement of the government on the natives rights to practice their religion freely. AIRFA was meant to fix this problem by explicitly stating that Native Americans had the right to religious freedom, as defined by the constitution. This law, besides allowing tribes to partake in their religious ceremonies was also supposed to protect sacred sites by making companies or the government consult tribes on the importance of a place before doing anything to the land. It stressed that they should be sympathetic to the Native American religions. It was also hoped by many that it could help repatriate land taken from tribes that had religious and sacred meaning. This act was supposed to be the perfect step in the right direction, but instead it actually reduced the ability for Native Americans to exercise their freedom of expression and religion. Now, the only way that tribes could protect their land was going through the court system, which was already a place of discrimination and mistreatment towards Native Americans. When cases were brought to trial, the burden was now placed on the tribes to prove that their religion was important and that their site of practice was indispensable to their religion and existence. To prove to the court that they need the land, they sometimes have to speak about very private and sacred rituals, sometimes things that their religion forbade them to discuss.  Almost every court case and application to take back land, occupy land for a particular ceremony, or protect a sacred site was denied.

It is clear that the act was superficial and useless. The government and companies saw it as guidelines that you only sometimes had to follow. It was actually stated by a government official when the law was being made, that it would not actually change anything about how the government used native lands and it would not lead to many modified practices. So while the tribes thought this law was a step towards reclaiming their religion and history, the government saw it as an unimportant nicety. A significant case that is an example for just how ineffective the law was, is Lyng versus Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association. In this case, Yurok, Karok, and Tolowa tribe members in California tried to stop the Forest Service from building a 6-mile road for logging straight through land that was at the core of their religious beliefs. Many people consulting on the case stated that the road shouldn’t be built, and the Forest Service even admitted that the road might not make a difference in logging and job production. However, the Supreme Court made the decision that the first amendment could provide no protection to the land because the government had no intent on affecting the religion and it did not coerce tribe members to give up their beliefs. Also, the benefit that the road could have for society, it was ruled, was more important than maybe destroying sacred land. AIRFA could not protect the land either because it only stated that the government and companies must be sensitive to religious practices, but there was no law forbidding the destruction of sacred land.

Protesting the Forest Services plan for building a road through a sacred site
Protesting against the Forest Services plan for the building of a road through a sacred religious site

The act was finally amended in 1990 but then was overturned because it was ruled that congress couldn’t make a law that protected the practicing of religion free from government interference.

NAGPRA is seen as replacing this act, and although it is much more effective, I believe we can take away important lessons and information from the AIRFA failure that could help improve our understanding of how well NAGPRA actually works and how to improve the protection and repatriation of sacred objects, land, and human beings. A fundamental problem with AIFRA was that the government and public were uneducated when it came to Native American religion and how significant land was to them. The governments were not sympathetic to different tribes beliefs because they did not understand what was so important. Another issue was that the Native Americans had to go through an already biased court system to get what they wanted. They also had to deal with the public and law enforcements stereotypes of them being a dead people and culture. Looking at this failed law  can help us critically examine NAGPRA and our institutions and systems to see what has changed for the better and what problems continue to this day that need to be improved.

Sources cited and for further reading:

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Red Power: Pan-Indian Activism

The state of Indian affairs today is not good, but it contains within it certain strengths which suggest a better future for the people.

-Vine Victor Deloria Jr., 1987

As many radical movements do, the civil rights movement of Native peoples began with a manifesto: the 1969 book, Custer Died for Your Sins by Vine Victor Deloria Jr. The text decries the history of Native oppression and aims to invigorate Native peoples while starting a national dialogue. For this and much more, Deloria will be remembered as one of the most influential forces of Native activism in the twentieth century. Born in 1933 to the Standing Rock Sioux people of South Dakota, Deloria came up in a time in which the repression of and violence toward Native peoples primarily took the guise of well-meaning legislation from the United States government (like the paternalistic termination policy). Reclamation of Native identities in the face of such oppression was the bedrock of his activist movement, called “Red Power.” Although it was started by a Sioux man, the Red Power Movement is a pan-Indian one. That is to say, Native peoples of many tribal affiliations are able to rally together, seeking the amelioration of issues which jointly disenfranchise them.

Writing which is still visible on a building on Alcatraz Island from the 1969 occupation which reads, "Indians Welcome"
Writing which is still visible on a building on Alcatraz Island from the 1969 occupation which reads, “Indians Welcome”

This unified mentality is echoed in the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay by a group whose members identified themselves as “Indians of All Tribes.” The takeover was justified by a treaty which allows Native inhabitation of federal land that is unoccupied. The occupation lasted approximately one year, during which time the group became an inspiration for other efforts of radical Native activism. Dozens and dozens of occupations of federal lands by Native peoples followed the 1969 occupation, including a 1970 protest by the American Indian Movement in which the group seized a replica ship of the Mayflower and covered Plymouth Rock in red paint.

Flag of the American Indian Movement
Flag of the American Indian Movement

The protest was successful in reinvigorating national legislative debates about Native rights, and was an instrumental component in the development of self-rule policies as well as the expansion of federal funding to reservations. The early efforts of the Red Power Movement were loud and unyielding; they forced the US government and American people to confront not only the continued existence of Native peoples, but also their passionate refusal of continued injustice. Indeed, the public assertion of Native voice is an act of radical defiance to the colonizer’s myth of the disappearing Indian.

While groups like the American Indian Movement have faced internal division and experienced much change over the past decades, they laid the groundwork for pan-Indian efforts which are crucial when it comes to issues like repatriation. Repatriation is, much as termination policy was, a pan-Indian issue. The manner in which this is important is two-fold. First, legislating acts like NAGPRA would be much more logistically difficult if they had to be done on a tribe-by-tribe basis. Though the concept of a “Native American” is a constructed one, made of up thousands of cultural identities, the embracing of simplified terminology allows for at least some larger foundation from which individual tribes can work. And of course, in terms of future activism, a pan-Indian movement to push repatriation efforts surely has more power than a factionalized one. While it may be slow-going at times, Native activism promises progress.

Additional Resources: Full text of Deloria’s Custer Died for Your Sinswebsite of the American Indian Movement, PBS 1961-2002 Timeline of Indian Activism 

Image SourcesAlcatraz and AIM flag


Kaho’olawe, Hawai’i and Native Activism

When we talk about repatriation and laws such as NAGPRA we mainly focus on indigenous peoples of the continental United States and tend to forget about Native Hawaiians and Alaskan Native groups. The main focus of this blog will be Hawai’i simply because I have more knowledge about Native Hawaiian studies and Hawaiian history after spending a semester at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.

Kaho'olawe is considered a sacred site for Native Hawaiians and is associated with Kanaloa the god of the ocean.
Kaho’olawe is considered a sacred site for Native Hawaiians and is associated with Kanaloa the god of the ocean.

Native Hawaiian activism and grievances against the United States government parallels those of Native Americans in many ways. Around the same time the American Indian Movement (AIM) was gaining momentum during the 1960s and 70s, Native Hawaiian activists were also coming together to protect their land and revitalize their language and culture. One of the most significant Native Hawaiian organizations of the 1970s was the Protect Kaho’olawe Ohana (PKO). The main goal of PKO during the 1970s was to stop U.S. military bombing of the sacred island of Kaho’olawe. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Hawai’i which was then a U.S. territory was placed under martial law and the island of Kaho’olawe was taken over for military use as a training ground and target practice site.

Colonial and U.S. military use of Kaho’olawe has made the island uninhabitable for Native Hawaiians

In 1976, about 5 years after the American Indian Movement (AIM) protested the U.S. government by occupying the island of Alcatraz, PKO and Native Hawaiian activists attempted to regain control of their Native land by taking over Kaho’olawe. While the activists’ illegal occupation of Kaho’olawe sent a clear message, PKO eventually took legal action. In 1976 the PKO “filed suit in the Federal District Court for the District of Hawaii to stop the Navy’s use of Kahoolawe for military training, to require compliance with a number of new environmental laws, and to ensure protection of cultural resources on the island. The court allowed the Navy to continue using the island, but directed it to prepare an environmental impact statement and complete an inventory of historic sites on the island. In 1980 the Navy and the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana entered into a Consent Decree. This agreement allowed continued military training on the island, monthly access to the island for the PKO, surface clearance of part of the island, soil conservation, goat eradication, and an archeological survey. In 1981, the island of Kahoolawe was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.” (

Native Hawaiian activists protest U.S. military bombing of Kaho’olawe.

Although the court’s decision required the U.S. government and military to recognize the cultural and historic significance of Kaho’olawe to Native Hawaiians, it made no effort to return control of the island to Native Hawaiians, and allowed the military to continue training and control access to the island. Up until 2003 the U.S. government restricted Native Hawaiian’s access to the island for religious and cultural purposes to a determined time each month. While the state of Hawai’i now has control over the island of Kaho’olawe it still limits access to the island to a few days each month. Kaho’olawe has become uninhabitable because of the destruction caused by the U.S. military and colonial introduction of feral goats. Access to the island is mostly restricted to volunteer groups that have been working to restore the island and its vegetation.
While the Hawaiian government has attempted to right the wrongs of the past by preventing commercial activities on Kaho’olawe and focusing on preserving the island exclusively for traditional Hawaiian cultural, spiritual and subsistence purposes, it is still problematic that Native Hawaiians cannot freely access their sacred lands without government intervention and restrictions.

Additional Readings:
PKO and Native Hawaiians Fight for Kaho’olawe:
Promised Land: Will Kaho’olawe Ever be Saved?
Sources Cited:

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Photo 2- By Ronen Zilberman, Star Bulletin
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Potlatch Ceremonies and the Repatriation of Potlatch Regalia

The potlatch is a ceremony practiced among indigenous groups of the Northwest coastal regions of Canada and the United States in which families come together to celebrate births, give names, conduct marriages, mourn the loss of a loved one, or pass rights from a Chief to his eldest son. The word potlatch derives from the Chinook language, and means “to give”. Accordingly, at the end of the ceremony, the host gives gifts to all in attendance. A host can achieve a high status in their community by giving out a large quantity of gifts. In exchange, witnesses are expected to remember and pass on the knowledge of the events they have witnessed. A website written by members of the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw, a group that practices the potlatch, states that the potlatch ceremony is “the very foundation for a system of laws by which we have always lived and continues as the cornerstone of our culture today” (

Dancers at a potlatch ceremony

In 1885, the Canadian government outlawed potlatch ceremonies. Christian missionaries feared the pagan implications of these ceremonies, and the government felt threatened by the distribution of wealth and anti-capitalist connotations of the ceremony. The Canadian Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, John A. Macdonald, called the potlatch, “the useless and degrading custom in vogue among the Indians … at which an immense amount of personal property is squandered in gifts by one Band to another, and at which much valuable time is lost” (

True enforcement of the law began in 1913. The number of arrests for potlatching increased dramatically, but individuals could often received lesser sentences if they pledged to stop engaging in potlatching or handed over potlatch paraphernalia, such as masks, whistles, cedar bark regalia, and coppers. Over 750 objects were confiscated, and the Canadian Department of Indian affairs paid a total of $1,485 for more than $35,000 worth of objects. Most of these objects were then sold or given to museums or individuals for display.

Masks that were worn during a potlatch ceremony

Clearly, the outlawing of the potlatch ceremony is awful and discriminatory. For individuals to be arrested for singing, dancing, or giving gifts, simply because these actions were part of a certain cultural practice, is unlawful and represents violence towards these tribes’ cultures and history. Since the confiscation of these objects however, there has been some progress made towards justice. The Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw protested the anti-potlatching laws, using petition and other legal means, though these efforts were unsuccessful for a long time. Many indigenous groups continued to practice potlatch ceremonies in secret, and in 1951, the section making potlatch ceremonies illegal was deleted from Canadian law, though some Native tribes say they would have preferred a repeal, which would have brought more public attention to the issue.

Gifts that will be given to guests at a potlatch held by Tlakwagila in 1983

Once potlatching became legal, many Native individuals and tribes worked to get back the objects that were illegally taken from them. In the 1970’s the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw formed the U’mista Cultural Society, which petitioned the Canadian government for the return of the objects. Though this was certainly a step in the right direction, the burden of proof that these objects were illegally obtained rested on the Native peoples, and even when that burden of proof was met, the government would only agree to repatriate the objects if a museum was constructed to properly preserve them. The U’mista Cultural Center in Alert Bay, British Colombia now houses many of these objects. Though I appreciate the progress in the repatriation of these objects and the recognition by the Canadian government that they were obtained illegally, I find it patronizing and unfair for the government to stipulate the conditions under which the objects will be returned. If the government truly recognizes that these objects belong to the Native peoples they were taken from, then it should be up to those tribes what happens to the objects upon repatriation. To force these objects to be housed in museums, in my mind, reinforces the idea that these are dying cultures that must be preserved and devalues the cultural traditions of these Native people while further reducing their agency over their own rightful possessions.

Further readings:



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National Congress of American Indians

The original Congress of the American Indian

The National Congress of American Indians (or NCAI for short) is a Native American advocacy group made up of leaders and advocates from Native American nations across the US. Their stated goals are the following:

  • To secure and preserve American Indian and Alaska Native sovereign rights under treaties and agreements with the United States, as well as under federal statutes, case law, and administration decisions and rulings.
  • To protect American Indian and Alaska Native traditional,  cultural, and religious rights.
  • To seek appropriate, equitable, and beneficial services and programs for American Indian and Alaska Native governments and people.
  • To promote the common welfare and enhance the quality of life of American Indian and Alaska Native people.
  • To educate the general public regarding American Indian and Alaska Native governments, people, and rights.

The Congress was founded in 1944 in response to the United States’ brutal implementation of termination and assimilation policies. That year 80 individuals from 50 tribes gathered to discuss some way to maintain and advance tribal rights and governance. The following year representatives from almost every tribe came to their conference.

There was a division in the 1960’s between the older and younger generations of Native Americans. The younger generation thought that the older was “selling out,” and believed that the only way to make change was by force. From this movement the American Indian Movement and the National Indian Youth Council were formed

Today, NCAI is primarily focused on tribal sovereignty which they believe is at the heart of almost every issue that faces Native American Nations.

Although being a completely sovereign nation cannot solve all the problems facing Native Americans, without this first step there is little that these nations can do if they are not respected and considered to be sovereign nations. Recently they have made great strides on this front, in 2009 the Embassy for Tribal Nations was opened in Washington DC. They have also made progress on the removal of racist depictions of Native peoples in the form of Mascots.

An anti-defamation ad created by NCAI

Although NCAI had little to do with the passing of NAGPRA (their website does not even mention it in the organization’s history) they support its implementation. However, they believe that it and similar laws, such as the Indian Arts and Crafts act need to be more strictly enforced. They also advocate for the renewal of Native Languages. They cite that “seventy of the remaining 139 spoken tribal languages could become extinct,” this year. They advocate for more immersion and revitalization programs to bring these languages back from the brink.

NCAI seems to be about as adept at what they do as other advocacy groups of similar scope, what is noteworthy is that they were the first to do so for Native Americans and continue to do so today, over seventy years later. There will always be pros and cons to advocacy groups like this, but I for one believe that they will always be one of the best non-violent ways to address today’s issues.



Additional Material:

2015 State of the Indian Nation

An article by a Native American who is unsatisfied with the results:

Epistemic Repatriation: NAGPRA and the Decolonization of Academia

Larry McNeil’s “Vanishing Race” challenges claims to Native epistemology and asserts the visual sovereignty of the artist.

The past five hundred years of ongoing colonization in America has typically been described in terms of physical violence and assimilation, however it is the epistemic erasure that I wish to focus on in this post. A critical component of assimilation is an epistemic amnesia. In other words, to erase Native American theories of knowledge and effectively strip them of any agency or sovereignty. If one sees assimilation in this light, as an act of “stealing,” then Native theories of knowledge are something worth including in discourses of repatriation.

While no law can be enacted to return everything that was stolen, NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) certainly opens the door to repatriation of physical objects as well as the implicit repatriation of Native American knowledge. Perhaps the best example of how knowledge can be repatriated is in American colleges and universities. Not only do many of these institutions hold vast collections of Native artifacts and bodies, but they also hold possession over Native American knowledge. As Bronwyn Fredericks (Indigenous Australian) posits, indigenous peoples are still considered “objects” (as opposed to subjects) of the academy in the way that they are studied and how their voices are marginalized:

Personally, even though I know that our experiences as Indigenous people within universities often reflect the experiences we have as Indigenous people in broader society, I still get surprised and angry when it is other academics who espouse notions of justice and equity with whom we experience tension and conflict in asserting our rights and cultural values. (Fredericks, 3)

Native Americans protest Berkeley’s vast collection of Native bodies, amounting to some 12,000 bodies. Such protests underscore the need for reform in academia’s relationship with Native peoples.


Fredericks’ objections to the systemic racism within global academia urges us, as ethical scholars, to consider our how our way of study serves to empower or dominate Native voices. Moreover, we are challenged to investigate how our own methodologies can assume power over Native theories of knowledge, often unknowingly, in seemingly benevolent ways.

It is with this great sense of caution and sense of positionality that Fine-Dare approached the NAGPRA process at Fort Lewis College. She conducted the process in a way that privileged Native voices within the oppressive context of a research institution. Many of the Native consultants, who were present to identify objects for repatriation, expressed a desire to repatriate knowledge as well:

There was also general agreement that Native peoples’ knowledge should be solicited more often when curricular materials dealing with Native peoples were taught and archaeological and ethnographic programs planned. This knowledge should not be of a sacred or religious nature, however, but of a practical nature, such as that concerning agriculture or architecture. (Fine-Dare, Ch 4)

Sentiments like this demonstrate how the unfettered acquisition of Native knowledge can be construed as appropriation. If the discipline is committed to decolonization, then a necessary step to shifting its historically oppressive power dynamics would include recentering the study on Native voices and effectively repatriating power and control of Native epistemologies to Native peoples themselves. With this in mind, I challenge us, as a class, to consider the inherent power and privilege we possess in studying Native American issues from an academic perspective and use that knowledge to further decolonize academia.

Further Reading:


Culture Conflicts: Conventions on War and Heritage

Lt. James Granger: “You want to go into a war zone with some architects and artists and tell our boys what they can and cannot blow up.”
Lt. Frank Stokes: “That’s right.”

-Matt Damon to George Clooney, “Monument’s Men” (2014)

What is it like to be told what you can and cannot destroy in the heat of battle? If you are a soldier fighting for your life, chances are that the little voice in your head will probably not be saying, “Don’t destroy that because it is important to the people who live here.”

However, for those indigenous peoples, the items or places which those warring forces are taking and/or obliterating are the sources of their identities. To take and destroy something of that great importance to a particular group of people is the equal to committing genocide, attempting to wipe the traces of those individuals off of the face of the earth. As a former history teacher of mine once said, “To destroy one’s identity is to break one’s spirit. Exterminating any remaining traces of that person or group’s history is a monster’s victory.”

The emblem of the Hague Convention (1954). This signifies any site selected for special protection by the Convention’s Protocol.
The emblem of the Hague Convention (1954). This signifies any site selected for special protection by the Convention’s Protocol.

This is where UNESCO has been attempting to intervene and protect the places and objects symbolically linked to cultures across the world. In 1954, the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was convened and today has been signed by more than 100 State parties with a majority of its signatories adopting the First (1954) and Second (1999) Protocols of the Convention.

Still, what is there to say about those who have not signed or agreed to the convention’s protocols? After all, those not involved are not bound by those same rules, resulting in ferocious and monstrous offensives designed to demoralize or dehumanize some group of people. For example, the 2001 destruction of the Buddhas in the Bamiyan Provence of Afghanistan by the Taliban struck a devastating blow against the local community. The idols were there ever since the Fourth Century A.D. and now there is nothing left but the hollowed-out caverns where the statues used to stand.

The Destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas on March 21, 2001, by the Taliban. The destruction of the Buddhas marked the obliteration of part of the region’s history.
The Destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas on March 21, 2001, by the Taliban. The destruction of the Buddhas marked the obliteration of part of the region’s history.

It is these types of attacks which strike at the very core of the intended targets, not to mention the shock felt all across the world in response. However, coming back around to the beginning of this article, if you were a soldier in a situation where your life depended on the destruction of a piece of someone’s identity, what would you do?

This is a call for the reevaluation of rules and precedents like the Hague Convention. How can some be restricted to protect precious cultural properties while others have unrestricted power to destroy such properties? Repatriation is a whole lot more than just giving back what has been wrongly taken as it now has been stretched to involve how to protect what is still left standing. And, hopefully, new protection rules can help prevent future cultural extinctions in the human race.


Bibliography and Further Reading Links

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Repatriation, Land, and Sovereignty: The Indian Citizenship Act (1924) and the Indian Reorganization Act (1934)

The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 and the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 have affected the citizenship of Native Americans, the structure of current Native American governments, and the land to which Native nations lay claim. Although in my research I did not find analysis of how these laws directly relate to current debates concerning repatriation, I believe that these laws come to bear on these processes due to their effects on Native American systems of governance and the land that officially belongs to Native peoples.

First, a bit of history concerning these two acts.

President Calvin Coolidge with four Osage Indians after Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act.

The Indian Citizenship Act can be understood as an attempt to assimilate all Native Americans into the U.S. sociopolitical mainstream, and has complicated understandings of the citizenship of Native Americans. This act extended citizenship and the right to vote in U.S. elections to all Native Americans while also stipulating that Native Americans would maintain their tribal membership – in effect, granting all Native Americans dual citizenship (Fine-Dare 64). However, as David E. Wilkins (Lumbee), professor of American Indian Studies explains in his article “Dismembering Natives: The Violence Done by Citizenship Fights,” this dual citizenship is fraught with historical complexities that have helped to create current conflicts concerning tribal governance and citizenship. Wilkins explains that these complexities include a denial of rights of Native Americans as guaranteed by U.S. citizenship by individual states1 and the effects of U.S. v. Nice (1916), which asserts that Native Americans are “simultaneously ‘citizens’ of and ‘subjects” to U.S. law” (Wilkins). Wilkins frames these complexities of legal identity and the specter of complex U.S.-imposed definitions of citizenship as a reason why corrupt or ineffective Native American governments are not being critically engaged by other Native Americans. He argues that Native American leaders who see problems in other Nations are reticent to speak out against corruption because of a historic mistrust of the U.S. government and a fear that critiques of tribal governments will invite the U.S. to infringe upon Native American sovereignty.2

Signing of the first tribal constitution under the Wheeler-Howard Act
Signing of the first tribal constitution under the Wheeler-Howard Act

The Indian Reorganization Act (1934) has also shaped the structure of current Native American governments. This act not only ended the policy of Allotment initiated in 1887,3 but also allowed Native Americans to create governments modeled on  that of the U.S. This act has been criticized both by Americans concerned by the increased ability of Native Americans to retain land and by Native Americans who find the imposition of Euroamerican systems of governance detrimental to the well-being of their Nations.4 Many Native Americans protested that this rigid governmental system did not reflect and thus denigrated their own traditional forms of governance, and that this imposition created internal tribal divisions between those who supported traditional governance and those who approved of the IRA (Churchill, Ward, Morris 15). Additionally, although this law gave Native Americans the ability to buy back land taken from them by the U.S. government under Allotment, Native Americans were not able to fully reclaim all land lost, and all transfers of land had to be of a “voluntary” nature on the part of the new white owners, instead of mandated by the government.

Both the Indian Citizenship Act and the Indian Reorganization Act have affected current structures of tribal governance, which directly impacts the ability of tribes to successfully go through the process of repatriation. Perhaps repatriation claims made by Native American citizens would not be heard or respected by tribal governments that aren’t representing the will of their constituents. Additionally, there is the potential for friction between U.S. federal structures and policies (like NAGPRA) and tribal governments if the U.S. believes that the specific Native government is corrupt. Additionally, as Native American citizenship becomes murky with the additive effect of multiple laws legislating citizenship, it may become harder to adequately demonstrate lineage or National citizenship that relates a claimant to artifacts or land as required by federal legislation such as NAGPRA. Finally, the inability for Native nations to reclaim the land taken from them illustrates the fact that there exist massive tracts of land that once belonged to Native peoples but are no longer held by them.

Ultimately, exploring these acts sheds light on current complexities of Native American citizenship, structure and function of tribal governments, and what is believed in mainstream U.S. discourses as land that belongs to Native Americans.

Map of US Reservations according to 2000 US Census
Map of US Reservations according to 2000 US Census


1. For instance, Utah did not recognize Native Americans as U.S. citizens until 1962

2. For extended coverage on the debate surrounding disenrollment, listen to the segment “I Know I Am, But What Are You” from This American Life, episode 491.

3. The General Allotment act (1887) divided most Native American reservations into 160-acre zones that were then distributed to male heads of household tribal members. All other land left over after this distribution was automatically bought by the US government at a low price who began selling it to non-Native settlers. The money from these transactions occasionally went back to the government but frequently went instead to the tribe to be distributed among members (Deloria and Lytle 5). Between 1887 and 1934 approximately two thirds of all reservation land in the continental U.S. was seized by the government under allotment (Churchill, Ward, and Glenn T. Morris 14)

4. For a detailed analysis of the history of tribalism and its problematic application as an “authentic” structure of Native American life, see p. 86 of “Retribalization in Urban Indian Communities” in American Indians and the Urban Experience (

For further reading/listening:

Below are three excerpts (both audio and transcript) of interviews with a Sioux attorney, a Sioux tribal chairman, and a Sioux tribal leader, who express different opinions on the benefits and detriments of the IRA to the Sioux Nation.


Churchill, Ward, and Glenn T. Morris. 1992. Key Indian Laws and Cases. In The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance, 13-21. M. Annette Jaimes, ed. Boston: South End Press.

Deloria, Vine, Jr., and Clifford M. Lytle, 1984. The Nations Within: The Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Wilkins, David E. May 16, 2014. “Dismembering Natives: The Violence Done by Citizenship Fights” Indian Country Today Media Network, accessed February 10, 2015.


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The Disputed Future of the Parthenon Sculptures

To whom in the world does the Parthenon belong? Naturally, believing that the Parthenon resides in Athens, one might argue that the important historical building is the property of Greece. However, after portions of the building, wall friezes, and sculptures were removed and displayed within museums in other nations, the question of ownership is complicated. Roughly half of the frieze from the Parthenon, as well as a great number of sculptures, are now owned by the British Museum in London.

I. Jenkins, The Parthenon Frieze (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)
I. Jenkins, The Parthenon Frieze (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)

Central scene of the east frieze of the Parthenon

According to the British Museum, Lord Elgin acquired the “Elgin Marbles” while he was an ambassador to the Ottoman Court. He was granted the privilege of studying and rescuing antiquities as reward for his good service. After bringing the collection to his home in Scotland, Elgin later sold them to the British government which displayed them in the British Museum starting in 1816. While in its online articles about the Parthenon sculptures, the British Museum repeatedly claims that Elgin intended to donate the pieces to the Museum, it also acknowledges that Elgin encountered financial problems that forced him to sell the works to the government. This begs the question – what was Elgin’s intention? Did he always plan to donate his collection? Or did he plan to retain the works until he experienced financial trouble that spurred him to sell?

The British Museum argues that “Lord Elgin can only be judged by the standards of his own day.” (The Parthenon Sculptures: Facts and Figures) It justifies Elgin’s actions, and the Museum’s current ownership, by arguing that others both before and after Elgin’s time took pieces of the Parthenon that are now housed in Museums across Europe. Yet does this justify the Museum’s ownership? “Just because everyone else was doing it” is not an acceptable argument for why the British, and other nations, should own part of another country’s national heritage site.

More than just national heritage, The Parthenon is now part of a UNESCO World Heritage site that includes other monuments of the Acropolis in Athens. Greece has asked, both through UNESCO and a bilateral request to the British government, to have the Parthenon sculptures returned to their home in this World Heritage site. The British Museum rejected both these requests, asserting that the pieces have become an important part of world history within the context of other works from the museum. Further claims that having the Parthenon sculptures inspired European powers to aid the creation of the Greek state are a striking justification for housing the collection in London.

B.F. Cook, The Elgin Marbles, 2nd edition (London, The British Museum Press, 1997)
B.F. Cook, The Elgin Marbles, 2nd edition (London, The British Museum Press, 1997)

Marble metope from the Parthenon

One of the most complicating factors in the “Elgin Marbles” case is the question of preservation. If Elgin had not brought the Parthenon sculptures to London, would they have been destroyed? There was great damage to the Parthenon before Elgin arrived and increasingly damaging restoration work completed on the remaining portions in the 1920s and 1930s. Perhaps the Parthenon sculptures were safer in the protection of the British Museum. Yet who were they saved for? The British Museum places huge emphasis on being an educational resource for the world. However, removing these essential portions of the Parthenon to preserve individual statues and friezes, caused irreparable damage to the site and limits the view of the Parthenon for all peoples of the world who visit that site.

The future of the Parthenon sculptures is still undetermined. The British Museum Act of 1963 makes repatriation impossible without amendment. The British House of Commons completed a second reading of an Amendment to the British Museum Act of 1963 that would allow for the Museum to legally return the Parthenon to Greece. Perhaps with legislation change, the British Museum will consider the value of returning the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. For the time being, however, the British Museum believes that the Parthenon Marbles are an integral and historically important part of its collection.

For more information about the Parthenon sculptures at the British Museum:
The British Museum “What are the Elgin Marbles?”
The British Museum “Lord Elgin and the Parthenon Sculptures”
The British Museum “The Parthenon Sculptures: Facts and Figures”
The British Museum: “The Parthenon Sculptures: Stewardship”
BBC “Parthenon Marbles: Taking up the fight” by Trevor Timpson