Native nations have struggled and actively fought for their rights. For more than 500 years, they have survived due to their diversity, persistence, and integrity. However, there have been areas where they have had to test the limits of sovereignty and individual rights. Two of them were repatriation and federal recognition.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
From the very beginning of the colonial encounter, non-Native people have been looting battlefields and massacre sites and robbing Indian graves. These macabre activities have included the taking of everything from sacred objects to human remains, and they contributed to museum collections across the United States and beyond.
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 give tribes an opportunity to reclaim the items within repatriatable categories that could be culturally identified as belonging to them.
Learn more about the seven years’ war in Native country.
Repatriation and Native Communities
Native communities approached the repatriation of human remains, funerary and sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony in a variety of ways. 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.
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 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.
NAGPRA and Tribal Sovereignty
The contest over the limits of exercising tribal sovereignty came into full view in 1996, when two non-Indians found human remains along the banks of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington. An initial study revealed them to be the most complete skeletal remains of greatest antiquity ever found in North America.
The scientists 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.
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. And 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.
This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Another area of contest was federal recognition or acknowledgment. This issue, perhaps more than any other, gets to the heart of the federal government’s ability to limit sovereignty since it revolves around who gets to decide who is or is not considered, legally, Indian.
Tribal nations that engaged in treaty-making with the United States established clear political and legal relationships. And, in so doing, their status as nations was recognized by the United States. But many tribal communities, particularly those in the East, did not enter into treaties with the United States. And still others, like California tribes, entered into treaties only to have the US Senate fail to ratify them.
Federal acknowledgment of tribal status is important because it establishes a trust relationship with the US government. And that trust relationship entitles tribal nations to federal funding and services, including health, welfare, and education, as well as training and technical assistance. Moreover, it makes it possible for tribes to take land into trust, to be self-governing, to engage in economic development, and to establish and enforce their own laws.
Learn more about the Trail of Tears.
Office of Federal Acknowledgment
The Office of Federal Acknowledgment was created in the late 1970s. It set a criteria for tribal communities seeking federal recognition. The criteria, however, proved to be so restrictive and burdensome that very few of the tribes seeking acknowledgment could meet them.
Acknowledgment has been especially difficult for Southern nations, such as the Monacans in Virginia, who fragmented—withdrew from the watchful eyes of non-Indians as a means of survival—and were ultimately defined by state governments as colored.
At the same time, local and state officials opposed acknowledgment because they didn’t want land to be removed from tax rolls, something that happens when land is brought into trust by the federal government.
Underlying questions of authenticity were at play, too, as critics of tribes seeking acknowledgment questioned whether the petitioners were really Indians.
Federal acknowledgment, then, demonstrates how much power people outside tribal communities have in deciding who can lay claim to the political-legal identity of being Indian. And, in so doing, they effectively limit and even prevent tribes from exercising sovereignty.
Common Questions about Repatriation and Federal Recognition of Native Indians
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act required federal agencies and other institutions that received federal money to account for the human remains, funerary and sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony in their collections.
In 1996, the most complete skeletal remains of greatest antiquity ever found in North America were found along the banks of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington. The scientists named him Kennewick Man.
Federal acknowledgment of tribal status is important because it entitles tribal nations to federal funding and services, including health, welfare, and education. Moreover, it makes it possible for tribes to take land into trust, to be self-governing, to engage in economic development, and to establish and enforce their own laws.