Native American Funerary Objects—Why Is Repatriation So Slow?

From the Lecture Series: Native Peoples of North America

By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act. It expanded tribal rights to reclaim the skeletal remains and funerary objects of their ancestors from collectors such as museums. However, many cases have been settled in just the last five years. Why?

Sherman Park in Sioux Falls, South Dakota is a Historical Site with Multiple Native American Burial Mounds in an Urban Setting
(Image: Jacob Boomsma/Shutterstock)

From the very beginning of the colonial encounter, non-Native people have been looting battlefields, massacre sites, and robbing Indian graves. It’s painful to put it that bluntly, but it’s true. These macabre activities have included the taking of everything from sacred objects to human remains, and have contributed to museum collections across the United States and beyond.

These institutions, of course, saw themselves as doing good work by preserving vanishing cultures and were certainly not counting on Native people being around to have a problem with their collection practices. But things didn’t work out that way.

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After many long years of protest and political action, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, in 1990. This legislation required federal agencies and other institutions that received federal money, such as museums, to account for the human remains, funerary and sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony in their collections. Then they had to allow tribes to reclaim the items within repatriatable categories that could be culturally identified as belonging to them.

To give you a sense of scale, this ranged in the tens of thousands of human remains and over a million funerary objects alone. Native communities approached the repatriation of human remains, funerary and sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony in a variety of ways.

White Deerskin Dance Outfit (Image: Edward S., 1868-1952, photographer, [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress/Public domain)

Some, like the Pawnee, Zuni, Southern Cheyenne, Yurok, and Haida, aggressively pursued repatriation so that they could rebury the remains of their ancestors or dance for the first time in a century with items that had been sold or even stolen. In August 2010, for instance, the Yurok in California repatriated 217 sacred items associated with the White Deerskin Dance and the Jump Dance that had been purchased at the turn of the century and eventually acquired by the Smithsonian Institution. “These are our prayer items,” their chairman explained. “They are not only symbols, but their spirit stays with them. They are alive. Bringing them home is like bringing home prisoners of war.”

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

In 2014, the Yurok held another repatriation ceremony to celebrate the return of an additional 128 ceremonial pieces used in their traditional Brush Dance. The Yurok cultural resource manager explained the importance of these items this way: “Not only do they belong with us, but they need to participate in ceremonies, which is their intended purpose. We are all out of balance until they are all home.”

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Other tribal communities believed there was nothing to be done about the desecration that had already taken place and simply wanted museums to show the objects and remains with respect. NAGPRA has served to strengthen communication and collaboration between tribes and museums and has brought about new kinds of museum work on many levels. But, NAGPRA also set the stage for contests over the limits of exercising tribal sovereignty.

Controversy Over the Kennewick Man

Kennewick Man Skull
Kennewick Man Skull (Image: Ghedoghedo/Public domain)

This came into full view in 1996, when two non-Indians found human remains along the banks of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington. When an initial study revealed them to be the most complete skeletal remains of greatest antiquity ever found in North America, archaeologists celebrated. They believed Kennewick Man, as they called him, would reveal new insights into the peopling of the Americas.

The Umatilla and four other Pacific Northwest tribes, however, argued that the person, whom they referred to as the Ancient One, was their ancestor. And, citing NAGPRA, they contended that he should be returned to them and reburied immediately.

The struggle between the scientists and the tribes lasted almost a decade. The Pacific Northwest tribes argued that oral tradition told them everything they needed to know to prove their relationship. But the scientists didn’t see it that way. The only way to prove cultural affiliation, from their perspective, was to proceed with the very DNA testing the tribes opposed.

In the spring of 2004, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld previous court decisions that found cultural affiliation with remains as ancient as the Ancient One’s couldn’t be proved. In July 2004, the tribes opted not to appeal the decision. In the wake of this setback, Congress and the Interior Department redefined the guidelines surrounding culturally unidentifiable remains to make it easier for tribes to repatriate them. That did not, however, impact the Ancient One, who remained at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum.

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That is until the reports from the DNA testing were returned. In the summer of 2015, scientists released a study that showed that the Ancient One was, indeed, related to the people of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. The Army Corps of Engineers received independent confirmation of the evidence in the spring of 2016, paving the way for repatriation.

Looking back on the 20-year struggle, the repatriation specialist for the Colville Tribes had this to say about the validity of oral tradition: “We know what we know, and we believe it. There was never any doubt.”

Common Questions About Native American Repatriation

Q: What does NAGPRA have to do with Native Americans?

NAGPRA is an acronym for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. This act protects the burial sites of Native Americans and endeavors to restrict people from entering onto burial grounds or confiscating cultural artifacts.

Q: How do Repatriation Ceremonies work?

Repatriation Ceremonies return objects of value, symbolic or otherwise, to the place of origin or creator.

Q: What was the last Indian battle?

The final U.S. Army versus Indian battle was at the Battle of Bear Valley where the Yaqui commander fell and his troops were captured.

Q: Approximately how many Native Americans perished from colonization?

Approximately 130 million Native Americans had perished by 1631. The colonization of America and the resulting indigenous deaths allowed Europeans to expand their empire and introduce the Industrial Revolution.

This article was updated on May 13, 2020

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