NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) was passed on November 16, 1990. It defined ownership and provided for the return of Native American (including Hawaiian) human remains and objects from museums. It also established procedures for future acquisitions. Subsequently, human remains and certain objects could be claimed (or repatriated) by lineal descendants or federally recognized tribes under certain conditions.

The passage of NAGPRA was the end result of a long history of protest on the part of Native people against the desecration of human remains and culturally important objects. Although many archaeological sites were protected and preserved as federal property, not until 1986 did tribes gain the opportunity to express their views about excavation on federal lands. In the 1970s the Native rights movement spearheaded by AIM brought attention to the issue of possession, sale, and display of human remains and cultural artifacts, picketing some sites and protesting in other ways. Non-Indians began to express support for the Native American position, and in 1989 Congress provided for the repatriation (return home) of human remains from the Smithsonian Institution. Shortly after, NAGPRA passed.

This law mandated that museums and other institutions that receive federal money return human remains and the grave goods associated with them when these items are claimed by known lineal descendants or a federally recognized tribe with a cultural affiliation to the remains. If the cultural affiliation is unknown, a case can be made for a tribe that “aboriginally occupied” territory where the remains and objects were found. The law required museums to publish inventories identifying the geographical and cultural affiliation of each item of human remains and associated funerary objects in their possession. These inventories also included culturally unidentifiable human remains. By 2007, inventories accounted for the remains of 158,008 Native American individuals. Of these, 26 percent were repatriated. Many tribes in the Midwest have reburied remains that they repatriated, often in specially designated places.


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The law also provided that tribes can claim grave goods not found with human remains, sacred objects needed by religious leaders today in practicing religion, and objects of “cultural patrimony,” that is, objects with ongoing historical or cultural importance central to a Native group. Museums draw on their records and consultations with tribal governments and religious leaders to produce descriptions of “collections” of cultural objects identified by their geographical and cultural affiliations. Tribes and lineal relatives demonstrating affiliation can claim these objects.

NAGPRA also made it illegal to sell or buy or transport for sale Native remains or sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony without the legal right to do so. After 1990, a buyer or seller had to prove the right of possession by having the consent of the party with the authority to dispose of the items. Most states now have grave protection laws and some provide for repatriation.

The law established the conditions under which scientific research can be done on the human remains and funerary objects found on federal land after 1990. Scientists need a permit from a federal agency and must consult with the appropriate tribes. If the remains or objects are found on tribal land, scientists need tribal consent. After the studies are expeditiously completed, the objects are subject to repatriation.

A national review committee monitors the identification process, helps settle disputes between tribes or between tribes and institutions, and makes recommendations about the care of repatriated objects and the disposition of unclaimed human remains. This committee meets publicly, usually twice a year.

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