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Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990)

What It Is

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), was signed into law on November 16, 1990.  Its purpose is to address the rights of lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations to Native American cultural items, including human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony often held by federally funded museums and agencies.  NAGPRA also provides protection for Native American human remains and other cultural items that are inadvertently discovered on – or intentionally excavated from – federal or tribal lands after November 16, 1990.

Why It Matters

In regard to repatriation, NAGPRA affirms the rights of Native American lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations to decide disposition or take possession of such items when lineal descent or cultural affiliation can be demonstrated. The law requires Federal agencies and museums receiving Federal funds to inventory their collections of such remains and objects, and work with Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations to reach agreements on the repatriation or other disposition of these remains and objects. Once lineal descent or cultural affiliation has been established – and in some cases the right of possession also has been demonstrated – lineal descendants, affiliated Indian tribes, or affiliated Native Hawaiian organizations generally make the final determination about the disposition of cultural items.

NAGPRA also protects Native American burial sites and controls the removal of human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and items of cultural patrimony on Federal and tribal lands. Many historic or prehistoric artifacts, however, may remain in Federal or museum ownership. For example, pottery, stone tools, and metal artifacts not from burial sites are not covered by NAGPRA. The law also stipulates that illegal trafficking in human remains and cultural items may result in criminal penalties. 

The National Park Service – like all Federal agencies with the exception of the Smithsonian – is required to comply with NAGPRA and accompanying regulations. (The Smithsonian Institution repatriation process is governed by the National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989.) All NPS employees play a role in preserving park resources, but specifically,

Park superintendents are responsible for:

  • notifying and consulting with lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations regarding intentional excavations and inadvertent discoveries on NPS lands
  • completing summaries of Native American collections in their control that might include unassociated funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony
  • completing inventories of human remains and associated funerary objects
  • evaluating requests for repatriation
  • making decisions about the repatriation/disposition of human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony under NPS control.

Additional Information

Looking for information, guidance or sample documents for implementing aspects of NAGPRA at an NPS site or unit? The Park NAGPRA program should be your first stop. [NPS Employees Only]

The National NAGPRA program, also administered by the NPS, overseers the national level implementation of NAGPRA: developing regulations and assisting other federal agencies, museums, tribal, and Native American partners.

Reflection

Interested in learning more about NAGPRA? You can find additional training and resources on the CLP.

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