The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is a federal law that protects Native American remains, funerary and sacred objects by establishing a requirement for museums, universities and other institutions that receive federal aid to repatriate and return these oftentimes stolen artifacts back to the tribal nations from which they originated. NAGPRA also sets guidelines for excavation on federal or tribal lands, and this year marks the 30th anniversary of its inception.
According to the National Park Service, “With this law, Congress sought to encourage a continuing dialogue between museums and Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations and to promote a greater understanding between the groups while at the same time recognizing the important function museums serve in society by preserving the past.”
Dr. Kelli Mosteller, Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Cultural Heritage Center director, oversees the Nation’s efforts to uphold NAGPRA by working with Native communities across the United States to ensure the accountability of museums and other institutions. She strives to assist with returning Potawatomi ancestors, artifacts and funerary objects back to their final resting place.
According to NAGPRA, those with Native American funerary objects, remains and/or sacred items in their holdings must conduct inventories of their collections to identify cultural affiliation and then consult with the tribes involved.
“One, they are supposed to discuss how they are cared for while they are still in possession of the institution. Two, if there is going to be repatriation, how that repatriation is going to happen. And three, look at their practices to make sure they are not continuing to bring in these objects,” Dr. Mosteller said.
The goal of NAGPRA is for Native American remains and funerary objects to no longer exist in museums, universities and other institutions.
Once reaching that milestone, “they will be back in their communities and back in the ground where they belong,” she said. “NAGPRA was long fought for.”
Since its inception, some universities and institutions have upheld the law, working with communities to repatriate their holdings. Some did not abide for years but are now trying to complete inventories and return items, whereas others have done little to no work in following the federal law.
“It’s one of the hardest parts of my job because whenever we do have consultations and we go out, we are given the chance to spend time with the ancestors to see how they’re being taken care of, and it’s traumatic,” Dr. Mosteller said.
When Dr. Mosteller learns about objects or remains, she consults with the museum or university to determine which community should receive the items and writes letters of support on behalf of fellow tribes. She also partners with Native Nations who still call the Great Lakes home, helping return ancestral remains and objects as close to their original resting place as possible.
“Our approach is that if there were ancestral remains found back in the Great Lakes … we don’t remove them and bring them back to Oklahoma — they were never from Oklahoma. They never lived here,” she said.
Dr. Mosteller is passionate about being as respectful as possible throughout the process and finds NAGPRA work to be the hardest yet most rewarding part of her job at CPN.
“Sometimes you go in and think you’re going to have a conversation about the minutiae and the end result of ‘how will we get these ancestors home?’ And you get there, and you realize that ‘Oh, I have to start from the beginning and explain to you that these are people with families and loved ones,’” she said.
Not everyone involved in research and archival holdings understands the trauma and negative cultural implications involved with taking Native American ancestral remains and objects from their communities or final resting place, and she works hard to bridge that gap.
“When I went to a reinternment ceremony up in Michigan, one of the elders was speaking directly to the ancestors whose remains were in this lodge with us, and he said, ‘I am sorry because we don’t have a ceremony for this. We don’t have a ceremony that was passed down to put ancestors back in the ground who had already been placed in the ground with proper ceremony. … We’re going to do the best we can. We are sorry if we’re not honoring you in the right way. This was something that was forced upon us,’” she explained.
Her efforts help educate others about NAGPRA as well as Native American history and culture.
Institutions obtain Native American remains and objects in a variety of ways. Occasionally, individuals or businesses uncover them during a building project. Others instances, researchers or collectors do so deliberately, often through illegal means.
“The end result is the same — the ancestor is still removed from the place they were intentionally placed with respect and love,” Dr. Mosteller said.
Although NAGPRA does outline the potential loss of federal funding for non-compliance, tribal communities must hold universities, museums and others that receive federal aid accountable for their actions. Dr. Mosteller takes her role seriously as a NAGPRA officer. That requires staying up-to-date with changes in faculty, keeping in touch with universities and fellow Native communities and conducting investigations.
“There is a great amount of unpaid legwork being placed on tribes,” she said. “It’s following all these paper trails of what institutions were working in and what area.
“However, universities can apply for grants to help them follow through on the requirements and bringing out tribes for consultations.”
Although NAGPRA has reached a 30-year milestone, the next three decades will require extensive time, effort and cooperation between all parties involved, including tribes, museums, universities, municipalities and states.
“I think it’s going to be a lot of proactive activity,” Dr. Mosteller said. “Hopefully, the work moving forward is finishing up and making good progress on getting ancestors who are already on shelves back where they belong and doing the hard work of protecting those ancestors who are in their resting place but are vulnerable because of continued building and human activity.”