Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

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A federal law passed in 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) mandates and codifies dual sets of processes whereby certain categories of cultural items are eligible for repatriation. The objects must be in the control, jurisdiction, or possession of federal agencies, or state or local museums, universities, and other academic institutions receiving federal funding, and must have cultural significance to federally recognized American Indian, Native Alaskan, or Native Hawaiian groups. Cultural objects in private, international, or nonfederally funded entities' possession, however, are exempt under current regulations. The repatriation process follows specific guidelines set forth by law. Return of cultural items is conditional, requiring deliberation by a select committee to verify whether certain qualifying criteria have been met. Cultural items that merit repatriation under NAGPRA include all Native human remains, their associated as well as unassociated funerary objects, sacred items, and objects determined to be cultural patrimony.

The law stipulates specific procedural guidelines and administrative mechanisms by which initial assessments, inventories, and notifications are to be made and penalties for illegal possession are to be levied. Financial grants for compliance are available to agencies and Native populations, as mandated by NAGPRA. Furthermore, guidelines specify procedures for initiating requests and for determining whether or not repatriation or other disposition of requested items is granted. Substantiation and proof of cultural affiliation or patrimony is the responsibility of the Native group(s) requesting return of cultural items. Deliberative decisions concerning such requests for repatriation are the responsibility of a seven-member committee appointed by the secretary of the interior; membership is comprised of representatives from Native groups and federal agencies. Decisions by this committee, whether for repatriation or other disposition, are conclusive.

Virtually every state and Native group in the union has been impacted by NAGPRA. It has been estimated that in 1990 as few as 100,000 and as many as 2,500,000 sets of human remains were eligible for repatriation. It is no surprise that NAGPRA stirred significant debate among all parties favoring or opposing the legislation. As of 2004 there were still 884,388 unidentified human remains and associated funerary objects in museums or held by federal agencies. According to another report, five museums and one federal agency in Oklahoma had 971 unidentified human remains and 941 associated objects in their possession; since 1994, grants totaling $3.25 million have funded Oklahoma's ongoing repatriation efforts.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Robert E. Bieder, "The Collecting of Bones for Anthropological Narratives," American Indian Culture and Research Journal 16 (1992). Jo Carrillo, ed., Readings in American Indian Law: Recalling the Rhythm of Survival (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998). Devon A. Mihesuah, ed., "Repatriation: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue," The American Indian Quarterly 20 (1996).

E. Jethro Gaede

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