Federal Law Continues To Push For Return Of Native American Artifacts, Remains

Image courtesy of National Parks Service.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – More than 30 years ago, Congress passed a law that requires federal agencies, institutions and some museums to return Native America human remains or other cultural items back to indigenous descendants and tribes. Members of Congress got an update as to how effective that law has been over the years.   

Officials said the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) has made a lot of progress returning remains and significant items back to their homes, there is still a lot of work to be done.

“Now over 30 years later, over two-thousand ancestral remains and approximately 2.5 million associated funerary items have been identified but only about 42 percent of ancestral remains and 70 percent of cultural items have been repatriated,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D- HI).

A spokesperson with the National Parks Service, which helps oversee NAGPRA said more than 117-thousand Native American individuals are still in museums and federal agency collections. According to Senator Lisa Murkowski (R- AK), the Interior Department reports only 21 percent of museums subject to NAGPRA have repatriated all of the Native American human remains.

The NPS said they’re aware that some collections subject to NAGPRA remain unreported in museums and other institutions.

“Many federal agencies are trying to locate extensive collections in non-federal repositories and museums are continuing to discover unknown or unreported collections that are subject to NAGPRA that should be returned to their original caretakers,” said Joy Beasley with the NPS.

This has been an important issue for Native American communities and it’s gained international attention recently following the remains of indigenous children found buried at an indigenous boarding school in Canada.

Members on both sides of the aisle seemed eager to find solutions to continue supporting NAGPRA’s efforts with this mission. If any person, institution or museum fails to comply with this law, they could face up to five years in prison or pay hefty fines.


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