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For decades, Native American groups requested the return of artifacts and human remains. Though there were occasional repatriations, the protests either fell on deaf ears or tribes lacked the financial and legal support necessary to complete the process. (Terry Snowball / NMAI)

The Road to Repatriation

The National Museum of the American Indian works with Native Tribes to bring sacred artifacts home again

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For decades, Native American groups requested the return of these objects and human remains. Though there were occasional repatriations, the protests either fell on deaf ears or tribes lacked the financial and legal support necessary to complete the process.

After lobbying from Native groups, Congress passed the National Museum of the American Indian Act in 1989, which covers the Smithsonian’s collections. It was followed by the 1990 passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which covers all museums and agencies that receive federal funds.

The laws require facilities to offer inventories of all their Native American artifacts to federally recognized tribes in the United States. Human remains, along with and funerary and sacred objects that can be linked to a specific tribe must be repatriated upon request. Grants are available to pay for the travel and research necessary for repatriation. As of 2006, about the remains of about 32,000 individuals had been repatriated under NAGPRA, along with nearly 800,000 objects.

The National Museum of the American Indian has a special field office to take care of repatriation. They have returned about 2,700 artifacts to communities across the Western Hemisphere, from Alaska to Chile. The Smithsonian Institution pays for visits to collections at the repatriation office near Washington, D.C., after which Native leaders can file a formal request. Researchers go through all available resources and may consult with Native experts to determine if the tribe has a relationship with the requested material. If approved, the museum then makes arrangements for returning the objects.

While most museums are extremely accommodating, tribal leaders say contentious issues sometimes arise about which objects are covered by the laws. They say tribal elders know better what should be returned to a tribe than reports by archaeologists and anthropologists.

“The elders have a strong spiritual foundation,” says Randall of the Yavapai-Apache tribe. “The museums use the written word as their bible and we use the real living authorities, which are the elders.”

A recent dispute erupted when the Saginaw Chippewa tribe requested the remains of about 400 individuals in the University of Michigan’s collection. “In our teachings and spirituality, our life journey is not complete until our bones are fully given back to the earth from which we were formed,” says Shannon Martin, director of the tribe’s Ziibiwing cultural center. “For them to be unearthed, disturbed and in boxes on shelves goes against all of our beliefs.”

But the remains, which are between 800 and 1,400 years old, are not affiliated with any particular tribe and are legally required to stay in the university’s collection.

“The Saginaw Chippewa are relatively latecomers into the region, so there is no way they actually have any relationship to the remains,” says John O’Shea, a University of Michigan anthropology professor. He says the large population represented in the remains has “tremendous research value.” Current regulations do not allow the university to give them to the Saginaw Chippewa in order to “preclude any irreversible change in the state of the remains,” O’Shea says. “Lots of different tribes have a potential interest in the remains.”

But the tribe says they have the support of the alliance of all the federally recognized tribes in Michigan, which would prevent any conflict between tribes. Martin says other institutions have given them similar unaffiliated remains, which the tribe buried in an ancestral graveyard.

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