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The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act

Since the 1960s, Indian activists have patiently asserted their rights and interests in the proper and respectful treatment of Indian human remains and cultural objects. Today, we appreciate the legal rights and religious values of Native peoples due in part to several federal laws, the Civil Rights Act (1964), the American Indian Movement (founded in 1968), the Indian Civil Rights Act (1968), the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978), and most recently, NMAI Act (1989) and NAGPRA (1990).

As a result, it is now broadly accepted that the intentional excavation of Indian burials and inadvertent discovery of burials during commercial development projects must involve consultation with appropriate descendant communities. In addition, it is increasingly accepted that Indian peoples have a legitimate interest in returning certain cultural items to their communities and in the disposition of ancestral Indian human remains in museum collections. NAGPRA has broadened American anthropology by requiring the profession to confront its colonialist past as a means of envisioning a new and more inclusive future.

A Letter From the Office of the Director

On 16 November 1990, “The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act” (PL 101-601) was signed into law. This act mandates the return of specific kinds of objects to Native Americans, makes illegal their trafficking across state lines, and is specific about the process and procedures for archaeological excavations. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum) is primarily affected by the first of these three requirements, involving museum collections. Five categories of objects are identified in the law: human remains, associated funerary objects, unassociated funerary objects, objects of cultural patrimony, and sacred objects.

Since the passage of NAGPRA, and in compliance with the law, the Penn Museum has mailed over 3000 letters to federally recognized tribes informing them of our holdings and extending invitations to consult with us about our holdings. As of 2023, 60 formal repatriation claims under NAGPRA seeking the return of collections have been received and 39 repatriations have been completed—resulting in the transfer of 270 sets of human remains, 752 associated funerary objects, 11 unassociated funerary objects, 23 objects of cultural patrimony, 8 sacred objects, and 6 objects claimed as both cultural patrimony and sacred. In addition, 19 sets of human remains have currently completed the NAGPRA process and are awaiting return at the discretion of the affiliated Tribes.

In the spirit of the law, Penn Museum’s repatriation staff has worked vigorously to accurately inventory and research our collections, and to inform, consult and cooperate successfully with tribes about the items in our care. Observing and listening to native representatives talk about the objects has in several cases been especially rewarding and informative - in a very real sense, it has brought life to the collections.

NAGPRA has simultaneously forced us to face a variety of difficult challenges, some solutions to which are still evolving as the repatriation process unfolds. Finding common ground between native interpretations of the law and those of the Museum has been a particular test, and it is in this area that ongoing discussions with tribes are most often focused.

For more information about NAGPRA please see the National Park Service (U.S. Department of the Interior) National NAGPRA website.

Inquiries about repatriation concerns and procedures should be submitted in writing to:

Christopher Woods, Ph.D.
Williams Director
Penn Museum
3260 South Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6324
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