NAGPRA and Laws about Collecting

What is NAGPRA?
Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is a federal law passed by Congress in 1990. When you hear someone say NAGPRA, they are actually talking about two subjects. The first is the protection of American Indian graves by the government of the United States. The second is the identification and return of human remains, artifacts related to burials, and artifacts of religious or cultural significance.

Who must obey this law?
All parts of the government of the United States must obey this law. Also, any public or private institution that receives funding from the US must also obey this law. However, the Smithsonian Institution is not subject to NAGPRA. The return of Smithsonian NAGPRA-related artifacts falls under the National Museum of the American Indian Act, which was passed in 1989. The National Museum of the American Indian Act does the same thing as NAGPRA but is specifically for Smithsonian Museums.

Why is this a law?
NAGPRA became law for several reasons: first, most state laws regarding graves only protected those that were marked. Often, American Indian graves were not marked. This left them unprotected by most state laws. Second, when graves of non-Indians were disturbed by construction or landscaping, they were often reburied quickly out of respect. The same was not done for Indian burials. Often the individuals within these graves were taken for study and not reburied. Third, NAGPRA is related to the first Amendment, guaranteeing the right to religious freedoms. American Indian graves, like any other, are part of a culture’s religious beliefs and customs. When American Indian graves are disturbed, it is a violation of those first Amendment rights. Finally, NAGPRA also strengthens tribal sovereignty by reinforcing the tribe’s right to manage their ancestors’ remains. NAGPRA is an attempt to correct past mistakes made regarding American Indian graves.

What else does NAGPRA include?
Another aspect of NAGPRA is the return of objects having cultural or religious importance to tribes. Throughout the history of the United States museums and similar institutions collected artifacts that were important to tribes as a whole. The entire tribe rather than an individual owned these objects and no one person should have sold or given away these objects to another person outside of that tribe. NAGPRA sets in motion the return of artifacts that fall into this category.

Items, nation-wide, returned to tribes as of 2010:
Human remains: 38,671 individuals
Associated funerary objects: 998,731 (includes many small items, such as beads)
Unassociated funerary objects: 144,163 (includes many small items, such as beads)
Sacred objects: 4,303

National Park Service. “What is NAGPRA?” http://www.nps.gov/nagpra/FAQ/INDEX.HTM#What_is_NAGPRA? 2010

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