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Tribes: NAGPRA process should be clearer, faster

NAGPRA – the law regarding the repatriation of ancestral remains – has received more federal focus recently. (Image via DOI.)

Tribal officials across the country report shared frustrations when it comes to the resolution of NAGPRA claims – the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

The more than 30-year-old law was passed to give tribes legal tools for the return of ancestral remains and funerary objects typically held by universities, museums and various federal agencies. But tribal officials say that in most cases the process is unnecessarily complicated and the costs of follow through are exorbitant. At the same time, many institutions estimate it could take decades and millions of dollars to go through collections and effectively implement the law.

The Seminole Tribe and its repatriation committee, led by Tina Osceola at the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO), are pursuing repatriation issues involving the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the University of Alabama, and several other federal and state agencies.

“… I go into each meeting with an open mind – but they’re not interested in repatriating ancestors. They’re more dedicated to their own research and patrimony over ancestors – not in making the process easier for the tribes,” Osceola said in an interview with the Tribune last month.

NAGPRA received more federal attention this month when the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing Feb. 2 to get feedback from tribal officials.

Rosita Worl (Tlingit), who served on a national NAGPRA review committee for more than a decade, told the committee that tribes put in an enormous amount of work into the NAGPRA process, but often without any results.

“Tribes go to a great deal of efforts and expense to bring that case before the committee – a committee comprised of scientists, museum professionals and tribal members  – without any guarantee that the committee’s finding will be acted upon,” Worl said in her in-person testimony at the hearing.

Others who testified suggested that oversight of NAGPRA should be under the auspices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs instead of the National Parks Service (NPS) – both of which fall under the Department of Interior (DOI).

In late January, the DOI hired a full-time employee at the NPS to investigate NAGPRA claims and violations of the law.

David Barland-Liles is now tasked with looking into allegations of museums failing to comply with the requirements of NAGPRA, and then presenting his findings to the Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo).

Barland-Liles’ job also includes providing technical assistance to institutions and federal, state and tribal agencies. The DOI said in a statement that civil penalties could be assessed against any museum that fails to comply with NAGPRA requirements.

In addition, the DOI also recently completed its consultations with 71 Tribal Nations on suggestions to improve NAGPRA regulations. Publication of the proposed changes is expected to be made available soon for public comment and review.

The DOI reports that proposed changes would streamline requirements for institutions to inventory and identify human remains and cultural items in their collections.

“The repatriation of human remains and sacred cultural objects, and the protection of sacred sites, is integral to preserving and commemorating Indigenous culture,” Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland said in a statement. “Changes to the NAGPRA regulations are on the way and long overdue.”

The initial draft of the proposed changes from tribal consultation is available on NPS’ NAGPRA webpage.

Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at