Example of a NAGPRA inventory report published in the Federal Register.

Sarah Shepard (Registrar & NAGPRA Coordinator, Arkansas Archeological Survey)
"Archeology is..." series - February 2024

A frequent question in archeology is: who owns the past? It’s simple to just think, well, don’t we all? While it feels like that should be the case, it’s not always that easy. Humans have always been intrigued by the past and by those who have come before us; it has fascinated every group of people from all eras of world history. Oral histories have been handed down generation to generation, heirlooms and keepsakes have been passed down to commemorate special occasions, even the names we choose to give our children can have special meaning when based on friends and family who are no longer with us. But when it comes to other objects that have belonged to a different culture or group of people that lived in a place before others were there – what then? Who owns the objects that were unknowingly sold or removed from the area they were meant to stay forever? What about the objects created by and belonging to people repeatedly deceived, disrespected, forcibly removed and involuntarily relocated from their ancestral homelands?
A major step was taken in 1990 to address that issue. The Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed to provide legal protection and directive regarding human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. The repatriation process entails returning legal control to lineal descendants instead of agencies, institutions, and museums. While facets of the specific law itself were not perfect or necessarily ideal for all descendant communities, it was the first time legislation addressed Native Americans and their ability to reclaim real ownership of their past. The law stated that any institution that received federal funding was legally obligated to comply with the rules of NAGPRA. At the time NAGPRA was enacted, numerous museums, university departments, and smaller institutions housed human remains recovered across the United States without regulation or guidance. Even more institutions had funerary objects that had been looted from burials and sold, or “recovered” by early explorers who set out to fill the shelves of museums to showcase the “American Indian.” Still today, we receive private donations or institutional transfers from people who want to do the right thing but don’t know how. The process can be slow to correct those mistakes – but, for better or for worse, we owe it to the people and cultures that have been harmed to do the work – and do it now.
The logo of the NAGPRA Community of Practice. Click or tap to visit their website.At its most basic, NAGPRA is a civil rights law. Why is it acceptable for someone to own the remains of an ancestral Native American when it is not acceptable for someone to go out and unlawfully dig up human remains of another culture now? I have worked on identifying, locating, and returning ownership of human remains and funerary objects for over ten years now and we still have more to do. It will take many more years of work to thoroughly assess all the material in our custody. Currently, a Survey-wide effort is underway to complete a systematic inventory of our collections, and there is a strong chance that more Native American remains and/or funerary objects will be identified. When I started this work, it took time to figure out exactly what steps needed to be taken and to understand the different processes that specific objects needed to undergo based on the available information. Luckily, now there are several groups of NAGPRA practitioners, and we meet often to offer each other help or advice in certain situations. Having these conversations with each other and with tribal partners who these objects belong to is an important impetus in making sure we are pressing on and involving everyone in the discussion.
The concept of repatriation has come a long way over the last few decades and has even further to go before it is truly practiced in earnest. While it used to be the case that consultation was only undertaken, when necessary, more and more archeologists are beginning to incorporate the viewpoints of tribal partners in decision-making at the onset of projects rather than calling at the last minute when the situation calls for it. If archeology and anthropology are defined as studying humans in the past and observing the actions of humans in modern day, then why wouldn’t it make sense to involve the living descendants of those individuals that we are trying to learn about? When all these issues are addressed and steps are taken to meet our ethical obligations towards correcting the mistakes of the past, then repatriation can be archeology – but maybe someday it won’t need to be.

“Archeology is…” Series Information

In this series we plan to highlight the many and various things that Are Archeology, from Art to Zoology and everything in between. We hope you enjoy learning a bit more about the variety of things that archeologists do and specialize in and maybe it will inspire you to be an archeologist even if you love learning about things in another field. You can find all the entries here.