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NAGPRA enforcement enters new era after more than 30 years
Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Museums and educational institutions are facing new pressures to comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) amid high-level attention to the decades-old law.

NAGPRA regulations finalized by the Biden administration on the eve of the White House Tribal Nations Summit in December have already forced some institutions to remove cultural items from public view. The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, was one of the first to take action as it considers how to secure “consent” from the Native communities affected.

“The announcement that the Field Museum will cover some of its displays to follow federal regulations is progress,” said Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation Chairman Joseph “Zeke” Rupnick, who noted that his tribe, how based in Kansas, has roots in Illinois.

“But, this is an opportunity for the Field Museum to expedite its process and fully commit to meaningful engagement with Tribal Nations,” Rupnick said of the January 9 announcement.

Another prominent institution, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, New York, just closed two exhibit halls as it too reviews how to comply with the updated NAGPRA rules. In addition to requiring free, prior and informed consent from Native communities, the regulations impose new consultation guidelines and deadlines on entities with ancestral remains and cultural items.

“While the actions we are taking this week may seem sudden, they reflect a growing urgency among all museums to change their relationships to, and representation of, Indigenous cultures,” AMNH President Sean Decatur said in a January 26 letter to his staff.

But the regulations, which went into effect on January 12, aren’t the only way NAGPRA is gaining renewed attention. A leading Democratic lawmaker is calling out museums, universities and other entities, arguing they haven’t done enough to comply with a federal law that has been on the books for nearly 34 years.

“For centuries, Native people have had everything stolen from them,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a fiery speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate on February 1.

The Field Museum in its announcement was quick to point out that it does not have any Native ancestral remains on public display. But Schatz characterized the institution by name as one of the many notable offenders of NAGPRA.

A list Schatz entered into the Congressional Record shows the The Field Museum with nearly 1,300 Native ancestors still in its collection, decades after the passage of NAGPRA in 1990. The tally for the AMNH is even higher, at slightly more than 1,880 remains yet to be returned to their rightful communities, according to the lawmaker.

“This smells of the worst kind of colonialism with a thin veneer of progressive ideology and verbiage,” Schatz said during his remarks, which lasted about eight minutes.

But Schatz singled out a state-sanctioned nonprofit, a state-run museum system and three prominent educational institutions as engaging in far more egregious conduct when it comes to abiding by NAGPRA and returning ancestral remains to American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians.

“Together, these five institutions still hold at least 30,000 Native ancestral remains,” Schatz said of the Ohio History Connection (7,167 ancestors), the Illinois State Museum (7,110 ancestors), Harvard University in Massachusetts, (5,680 ancestors) the University of California, Berkeley, (4,959 ancestors) and Indiana University (4,838 ancestors).

It is no secret that federal agencies, museums, universities, colleges and other institutions have been slow to comply with NAGPRA. Since 1990, fewer than half of the 208,698 ancestral remains known to be in these collections have undergone a complete review, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported last October.

When it comes to the 2,619,951 sacred items being held in collections, the record is somewhat better. According to the GAO’s snapshot report, about 29 percent of funerary objects haven’t gone through the complete NAGPRA process.

“The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is an essential tool for the safe return of sacred objects to the communities from which they were stolen,” Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who is the first Native person to serve in a presidential cabinet, said in explaining why her department advanced the NAGPRA regulations.

“Among the updates we are implementing are critical steps to strengthen the authority and role of Indigenous communities in the repatriation process,” said Haaland, who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico. “Finalizing these changes is an important part of laying the groundwork for the healing of our people.”

Historically, non-Native entities have scuttled attempts to strengthen enforcement of NAGPRA. A simple two-word amendment to the law, for example, faced intense opposition from academics and researchers who have long argued that they should be able to study ancestral remains that they don’t believe can be connected to a present-day Native peoples.

Following years of inaction, Haaland’s department has managed to make significant inroads. The new NAGPRA rule eliminates what are known as “culturally unidentifiable human remains” — a problematic category that has allowed institutions to hold onto ancestors indefinitely by claiming they aren’t connected to an Indian nation or to a Native Hawaiian organization (NHO).

The elimination of “culturally unidentifiable human remains” stands to bring major changes of the kind the AMNH leader alluded to in his letter. According to the National NAGPRA Program, which is housed at the National Park Service within Interior, the vast majority of ancestors have been held hostage by the existing category.

“Over 96,000 Native American individuals are still in collections and 90,803 of those have not been culturally affiliated with any present-day Indian tribe or NHO,” the fiscal year 2023 report from the program stated.

“Cultural affiliation and consultation could resolve the rights to these individuals, especially in states like Illinois (15,136), Ohio (10,894), California (7,385), and Florida (6,083),” the report continued, highlighting some of the same places Schatz called out in his Congressional remarks.

According to Interior, the department received 181 individual submissions that yielded over 1,800 specific comments to the NAGPRA rule that just went into effect. The American Alliance of Museums (AAM), which represents a broad range of institutions, from art and history museums to science centers and zoos, said more federal funding will be needed to due to the “substantial” costs of complying with any new requirements.

“AAM and our members are committed to both the letter and spirit of NAGPRA,” a comment from the organization reads. “Museums across the country continue and are ready and willing to do all that they can to facilitate the identification and safe, respectful return of Native remains and sacred objects to the appropriate descendant communities.”

According to the National NAGPRA Program report, the NPS in fiscal year 2023 had $3.407 million to award in grants, which was the “largest amount ever available in the history of the 34-year-old law. Recipients included 16 tribes and 28 museums.

“Since 1994, over $59 million has been awarded,” the report stated of all NAGPRA grants.

But President Joe Biden’s fiscal year 2024 budget request does not call for additional funds for NAGPRA grants. The budget justification for the NPS anticipates the awarding of just 35 grants — 25 to assist with consultation and documentation projects leading to repatriation of ancestors and artifacts, and another 10 to assist with travel and transportation of repatriated property.

Schatz, however, called on institutions to devote their own resources to NAGPRA. He pointed out that Harvard University, which has the third largest collection of Native ancestors and the largest academic endowment in the world at nearly $50 billion, is promising to pay for the travel of tribal and Native leaders for repatriation visits.

“Give the items back. Comply with federal law. Hurry,” Schatz said last week.

“Devote resources to this,” Schatz continued. “Demonstrate in three dimensions that you care about the values that you espouse.”

A list of 75 institutions holding Native ancestral remains was entered into the Congressional Record on February 1, 2024, by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). Source: Congressional Record – Senate [S335]

The list of 75 institutions [PDF] holding more than 87,000 Native remains includes the Department of the Interior. According to the document, the federal agency that works most closely with tribes and their citizens is holding onto 3,672 ancestors, representing the eighth largest such collection.

The Department of Defense comes in at number 14 on the list, with 1,950 Native ancestors reported to be in custody. The government agency is being accused of refusing to comply with NAGPRA in a lawsuit filed in federal court. The Winnebago Tribe is seeking the repatriation of two of its children who were buried at the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a site in Pennsylvania still under control of the U.S. military.

The list also shows the Department of Agriculture with 769 Native ancestors who have not been repatriated.

Tribal citizens take part in a repatriation and reburial ceremony at the Presidio of Monterey in California in October 2017. Photo: Presidio of Monterey

Unrepatriated Ancestral Remains - NAGPRA

A list of 75 institutions holding Native ancestral remains was entered into the Congressional Record on February 1, 2024, by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). The table here shows the institution name and the number of unrepatriated ancestors. Download the list in a comma-separated values (CSV) format: CSV
InstitutionUnrepatriated Ancestral Remains
Ohio History Connection7167
Illinois State Museum7110
Harvard University5680
University of California, Berkeley4959
Indiana University4838
University of Tennessee, Knoxville3929
University of Kentucky2807
Department of the Interior3672
University of Alabama2732
University of Arizona2624
University of Florida2620
University of Missouri, Columbia2451
University of Oklahoma2324
Department of Defense1950
Center for American Archaeology, Kampsville Archaeological Center1947
University of Texas at Austin1905
American Museum of Natural History1882
Milwaukee Public Museum1600
Florida Department of State1447
Field Museum1298
State Museum of Pennsylvania908
Southern Illinois University, Carbondale846
Arizona State University786
University of Michigan781
Museum of New Mexico, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture779
Department of Agriculture769
Auburn University767
Universiy of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign761
Virginia Department of Historic Resources711
Carnegie Museum of Natural History646
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill641
New York State Museum584
Univ. of New Mexico583
Mississippi Dept. of Archives and History551
Cincinnati Museum Center520
Florida State Univ.508
Nassau County Dept. of Parks and Recreation488
Cleveland Museum of Natural History477
Univ. of Kansas458
Dayton Museum of Natural History438
San Jose State Univ.429
Natural History Museum of Utah416
Univ. of Pennsylvania402
Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site383
Museum of Texas Tech Univ.377
Tennessee Dept. of Env't and Conservation374
Yale Univ.366
West Virginia Division of Culture and History365
West Texas A and M Univ.362
California Dept. of Parks and Recreation359
San Francisco State Univ.359
Western Kentucky Univ.351
Los Angeles County Natural History Museum343
Kansas State Historical Society305
Missouri Dept. of Natural Resources301
Univ. of Texas at San Antonio294
Gilcrease Museum271
Sonoma State Univ.267
North Carolina Office of State Archaeology262
Univ. of South Carolina, SCIAA261
Univ. of Louisville259
Ball State Univ.240
Wisconsin Historical Society239
Indiana State Univ.232
Univ. of Toledo210
Univ. of Alaska Museum of the North197
Mississippi State Univ.196
Missouri Dept. of Transportation196
Maryland Historical Trust190
California Univ. of Pennsylvania183
Univ. of California, Davis172
HistoryMiami Museum160
Univ. of Wisconsin, Oshkosh159
East Carolina Univ.152
Beloit College145

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