US revises law governing repatriation of Indigenous remains and grave goods

The US Department of the Interior is revising the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in an effort to strengthen enforcement. The 1990 law requires institutions that receive federal funding to inventory their possessions of human remains and Indigenous grave goods to facilitate their return to the respective tribes. It has been a point of contention for several US museums since its enactment due to logistical hurdles regarding tribal affiliation and compliance.

The review involves reviewing more than 700 proposals from tribal leaders and appointing David Barland-Liles to the newly created post of Civil Penalties Investigator, a full-time role in which he will closely assess compliance failures. to make sure the law helps. repatriation to its maximum potential.

“The recommendations are primarily intended to facilitate tribal affiliation with their ancestry and cultural artifacts, thereby facilitating the repatriation of museums and federal agencies,” Barland-Liles said. “We need to shift our focus to building connections with modern tribes and emphasizing collaboration with tribal nations.”

Barland-Liles was previously a law enforcement officer for the National Park Service, which oversees NAGPRA compliance. He conducted a survey of the Effigy Mountains National Monument in Iowa, an area that preserves more than 200 prehistoric mounds and contains a museum that once housed a collection of excavated artifacts and human remains. In 2016, a museum superintendent, attempting to evade NAGPRA warrants, stole the bones of over 40 people and was eventually jailed and fined over $110,000.

“This case exposed certain vulnerabilities in the law and marked the first time the U.S. government invited representatives from all possibly affiliated countries to oversee a federal investigation,” he says. “The transparency and honesty of the process allowed us to build tremendous trust with tribal descendants, leading to collaboration rather than investigation. Coming out of a grim circumstance, there was this interesting element of hope for the future and a way forward.

He adds that NAGPRA “is one of the few government programs that wants to go bankrupt. Repatriation is about remedying the anguish associated with these ancestors and objects”.

The complications of tribal affiliation and conformity were recently illustrated in a case involving the Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, whose collection includes approximately 10,000 Indigenous human remains and grave goods – the most large number of all US museums, according to a 2020 state audit. After lengthy discussions with indigenous activists, the museum in January repatriated a collection of human remains and artifacts belonging to members of the Wiyot tribe killed in a massacre in 1860.

In a statement to The arts journala museum spokesperson asserts that a “restrictive and unfair interpretation of NAGPRA […] privileges scientific and scholarly evidence over tribal interests, demanding an unreasonable degree of “scientific proof” that often precludes repatriation.” In this case, “tribal knowledge or traditions have been ignored or given less weight, and tribal representatives have not been invited to participate in discussions on the review of claims”.

The spokesperson adds that one of the main issues affecting compliance with NAGPRA is the fact that the law only applies to the 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States, although more than 200 tribes n do not have federal status.

“Most of the ancestors and property still held by the museum are culturally affiliated with federally unrecognized tribes in the Bay Area,” the spokesperson’s statement added. “While we have described the facts which in the past have hindered repatriation, we hope that new policies and practices […] will make repatriation less complicated, and that we will be able to achieve our goal of transferring control and repatriating all of our ancestral holdings and cultural property.

The Association of American Indian Affairs (AAIA) posted a comment regarding the proposed revisions, stating that “the current regulations have failed […] as well as agencies and museums by creating loopholes that cement the institutional racism of our shared past.”

The organization adds that NAGPRA is seriously outdated, having been enacted more than three decades ago. “Since then, we have deepened our understanding of how institutions thwart NAGPRA and exploit weaknesses in current regulations to undermine Congressional repatriation and grave protection requirements,” the AAIA statement added. .

Among several recommendations, the organization urges the review to redefine the one and only exception to repatriation, or “right to possession” stating that human remains or grave goods were obtained with the full knowledge and consent of descendants in direct line, and that the institutions improve the documentation of their collections.

“Full data sharing is essential to facilitate repatriation, but the flow of information may be inadequate,” writes the AAIA. “Many tribes complained that museums and agencies would not provide all relevant collection documentation as requested. Tribes should not be overwhelmed with convincing information production.

The Home Office said it began reviewing proposed revisions to NAGPRA this month, but it’s unclear when the changes will be finalized or enacted.

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