Protecting the Past and the Future? Laws and Native Art Museums

Many collectors in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries collected culturally sensitive materials (like ceremonial items and funerary remains) in their efforts to amass everything that pertained to Native American life. Often these items were collected under coercion using illegal and inappropriate methods. The Federal Antiquities Act of 1906 was the first law enacted to protect tribal and public lands from being looted for grave remains by various collectors and “amateur” archaeologists. However, these laws did not address an inherent reversed power dynamic. Kathleen S. Fine-Dare notes, “While the act served to greatly reduce amateur archaeological looting on public and Indian lands, it reinforced the idea that the Native American past belonged not to Indians but to scientists.”

Throughout the decades, as Indian activism grew, people petitioned the federal government and museums to alter their policies to respect the grave sites and cultural materials of Native peoples. The National Museum of the American Indian Act passed in 1989, establishing the National Museum of the American Indian as part of the Smithsonian Institution. By law, the act required a full documentation of funerary remains in collections established by Heye and also started the process of repatriation to federally recognized Native communities within the US.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is a federal law created in 1990 that requires federally funded institutions to inventory all Native human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony within their collections. When inventories are completed by a museum, they are sent to the tribes the items belonged to or are culturally affiliated with. After this, tribes can contact the institution to begin processes of cultural identification and repatriation claims. This act has had several amendments in recent years and remains an important stepping stone between cultural institutions and federally recognized tribes to communicate and set in motion the return of culturally sensitive material.

Recently, SAR hosted a discussion of new amendments made to NAGPRA. Listen to the Panel Discussion: NAGPRA’s Newest Rule—43 CFR 10.11.

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