Thirty years ago Congress passed landmark legislation designed to return the remains and funerary objects of countless Native Americans to the ground from which they were taken long ago.
By Mike Toner
This is an article excerpt from the Fall 2020 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription.
Thirty years ago Congress passed landmark legislation designed to return the remains and funerary objects of countless Native Americans to the ground from which they were taken long ago. Museums worried that the law would empty their shelves of priceless cultural treasures. Archaeologists warned that it would stifle efforts to learn more about America’s first people. And the tribes dared to hope that, decades after being taken from their graves, their ancestors would finally be at rest again.
Elaborate stone and clay pipes were often found in Native American burials as funerary offerings. This pipe was recovered from a prehistoric house floor in eastern Tennessee. | Photo Courtesy of the TVA
Daniel White, the chancellor of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, addresses members of the NAGPRA Review Committee during a meeting at the university in 2019. | Photo Courtesy of NPS
Members of the TVA meet annually with federally recognized Indian tribes to discuss the TVA’s NAGPRA efforts and to provide the tribes opportunities to visit important archaeological sites in the Tennessee Valley. TVA employees and members of five tribes are seen at an important site in east Tennessee in this photo. | Photo Courtesy of the TVA
Members of the Igiugig community participate in a funeral service for ancestral remains that were repatriated. The service was conducted by a Russian Orthodox priest. | Credit: Bill Billeck, courtesy Smithsonian Institution
To the dismay of many, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is still a work in progress. And still contentious. “Progress has been slow, but steady,” said the National Park Service’s national NAGPRA program manager Melanie O’Brien. “But when Congress passed this law, I don’t think anyone had any idea how large the task would be, or that we would be here, thirty years later, with so much still to do.”
So far, 80,000 sets of human remains and more than 1.5 million artifacts from graves have been returned to tribes who claimed them. But at least 118,000 Native American remains are still in the hands of museums, government agencies, and institutions. The number, in fact, is growing as more forgotten remains are discovered in unopened boxes and dusty basements. “We thought we would be repatriating our ancestors; the museums thought they would be emptied out,” said Shannon Keller O’Loughlin, executive director of the Association of American Indian Affairs. “Neither has happened to the extent that they thought it would.”
Things are changing, but not, as some archaeologists see it, for the better. In 2010, the Department of the Interior, the agency that administers NAGPRA, adopted an administrative rule that established a process whereby tribes could make requests for culturally unidentifiable remains, which are remains that have no cultural affiliation to modern Indian tribes or native Hawaiian organizations. Prior to the rule such a process didn’t exist, and consequently “a museum or federal agency could retain control over culturally unidentifiable human remains indefinitely,” said O’Brien.