In This Article NAGPRA and Repatriation of Native American Human Remains and Cultural Objects

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies
  • Knowledge Generated and Restricted
  • Digital Repatriation
  • Curatorial Concerns
  • Identity and Religion
  • Healing Trauma

Anthropology NAGPRA and Repatriation of Native American Human Remains and Cultural Objects
Russell Thornton, Jamie Geronimo Vela
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0236


Hundreds of thousands—some say 1 million—Native American skeletal remains are held in institutions around the world. Probably half are in the United States. How many tribal objects are held is unknown, but the number is in the many millions. Hundreds of remains and thousands of objects are uncovered every year in the United States, mostly by construction projects. That Native American tribes and individuals have been disenfranchised from ancestral remains and important tribal objects is a terrible facet of American history; it is also of great discomfort to Native Americans. The situation is exacerbated as some remains and objects are from atrocities in American Indian history, e.g., the 1890 Wounded Knee and 1864 Sand Creek Massacres. Many objects are symbolic and sacred, necessary in Native American ceremonies and rituals. On occasion, repatriation requests were granted by museums; but Native Americans were virtually at their mercy. Native Americans lobbied for the eventual passage of two federal laws preventing further disenfranchisement from remains and objects, and requiring their repatriation. In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed. It provided legal protection to Native American and Native Hawaiian graves. It also mandated repatriations to lineal descendants or federally recognized tribes of culturally affiliated human remains, funerary objects (objects associated with burials), objects of cultural patrimony, and sacred objects held in institutions receiving federal funding. A year earlier, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) Act of 1989 had passed. It called for only the return of human remains and funerary objects held at the Smithsonian. (Given this act, the Smithsonian was excluded from NAGPRA; the NMAI Act was amended in 1996 to include objects of cultural patrimony and sacred objects.) State laws at this time were limited in scope or not applicable, and mostly referred to burials. The most well-known are Iowa’s Burial Protection Act of 1976, and Nebraska’s Unmarked Human Burial Site and Skeletal Remains Protection Act of 1989. Subsequent to NAGPRA, repatriation state laws were enacted, e.g., California developed a law along the lines of NAGPRA. Most relevant institutions now have created repatriation policies in line with, and sometimes going beyond, NAGPRA and state laws. While causation is hard to ascertain, these developments—especially NAGPRA—have influenced international repatriation, either within or between countries. Too, international events have influenced the United States, and the United States has repatriated to other countries, and they to the United States.

General Overviews

Overviews are found in Thornton 1992, Thornton 1998, Fine-Dare 2002, McKeown 2008, and Echo-Hawk 2002. They are focused on NAGPRA but may include the Smithsonian. It has become popular to overview and assess NAGPRA at certain points: Museum News provides a series of interviews ten years after the passage of NAGPRA, and Daehnke and Lonetree 2011 provides a twenty-year assessment, while Cryne 2009 provides a twenty-five-year one. Along these lines, Colwell-Chanthaphonh 2012 publishes the results of a survey about NAGPRA, its implementation, and problems as viewed in “Indian Country.”

  • Colwell-Chanthaphonh, C. 2012. The work of repatriation in Indian Country. Human Organization 71.3: 278–291.

    DOI: 10.17730/humo.71.3.27127j5881v04727E-mail Citation »

    Results of an online survey of tribal repatriation workers. It establishes a baseline understanding of their backgrounds and motivations, and also points of view about NAGPRA’s impact on Native communities, experiences with it, and collective vision of its future. Available by subscription from JSTOR.

  • Cryne, J. 2009. NAGPRA revisited: A twenty-year review of repatriation efforts. American Indian Law Review 34.1: 99–122.

    E-mail Citation »

    The examination of conflict over the value placed on human remains, funerary objects, objects of cultural patrimony, and sacred objects, as defined in NAGPRA. Cryne argues that the failure to treat people and sacred possessions with respect and importance has religious and social consequences. Available by subscription from JSTOR.

  • Daehnke, J., and A. Lonetree. 2011. Repatriation in the United States: The current state of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. American Indian Culture and Research Journal 35.1: 87–96.

    DOI: 10.17953/aicr.35.1.dq4202hwm0r4q4g6E-mail Citation »

    Nice history and current status of NAGPRA, with special attention given to legal issues, culturally unidentified human remains, and decolonization.

  • Echo-Hawk, R. 2002. Keepers of culture: Repatriating cultural items under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Denver, CO: Denver Art Museum.

    E-mail Citation »

    A broad, excellent overview of the repatriation of cultural and sacred objects. It is based on Echo-Hawk’s experiences at the Denver Art Museum and the Colorado Historical Society.

  • Fine-Dare, K. S. 2002. Grave injustice: The American Indian repatriation movement and NAGPRA. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    A history of the repatriation movement, focusing on legal change and evolution in Native American and public attitudes. Almost half the volume is devoted to the historical context of the repatriation movement, while the remainder considers post-NAGPRA issues and developments.

  • McKeown, C. T. 2008. Repatriation. In Handbook of North American Indians. 17 Vols. Vol. 2, Indians in contemporary society. Edited by G. Bailey, 427–437. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    A short, general overview of repatriation by a legal anthropologist working at the National Park Service and charged with implementing NAGPRA. The multivolume Handbook is the Smithsonian’s definitive statement on Native Americans.

  • Museum News. 2000. September/October 79: 42–75.

    E-mail Citation »

    A ten-year assessment of NAGPRA through discussion among five people representing NAGPRA, the NMAI, the Morning Star Institute, the Peabody Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, and the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona.

  • Thornton, R. 1992. Repatriation. In Native America in the twentieth century: An encyclopedia. Edited by M. B. Davis, 542–544. New York: Garland.

    E-mail Citation »

    An early, albeit brief overview of repatriation under NAGPRA and the NMAI Act; it includes state activity. It was published for the National Museum of the American Indian.

  • Thornton, R. 1998. Who owns our past? The repatriation of Native American human remains and cultural objects. In Studying Native America: Problems and prospects. Edited by R. Thornton, 385–415. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Broad treatment of repatriation activities, especially at the Smithsonian and its NMNH. The author is former chair of the Smithsonian Institution’s Native American Repatriation Review Committee (RRC). Several repatriation cases are summarized in the chapter, mostly from the author’s experiences.

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