What is NAGPRA?

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

NAGPRA stands for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. This is a federal law, originally passed in 1990 (with only minor amendments since), which:

Provides for the ownership or control of Native American cultural items (human remains and objects) excavated or discovered on Federal or tribal lands. Vests ownership or control of human remains and associated funerary objects: (1) in the lineal descendants of the Native American; or (2) if the lineal descendants cannot be ascertained, or the funerary objects and so forth are unassociated, in the Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization on whose land the remains or objects were located, or which has the closest cultural affiliation with the remains or objects (and makes claim for them), or, if the land was Federal, in the Indian tribe recognized as aborginally occupying the area (unless a different tribe, by preponderance of the evidence, makes a stronger claim). Provides for disposition of unclaimed Native American cultural items according to regulations promulgated by the Secretary of the Interior.

NAGPRA is in the news in March 2010 for three reasons.


First, the National NAGPRA Program launched “the online Culturally Affiliated Native American Inventories Database summarizing data from museums and Federal agencies that have NAGPRA compliance obligations” on March 1st.

Reference databases tend to be quite useful…. Here’s the link to all of the NAGPRA online databases, and here’s one to the new Culturally Affiliated Native American Inventories Database. This database:

is a transmission for public use of data from museums and Federal agencies that have NAGPRA compliance obligations. Many of the Native American human remains described here have been culturally affiliated as a result of consultation with tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations. All individuals on this database should be represented in a Notice of Inventory Completion. The tribe or tribes designated as eligible to receive the human remains in each inventory are noted in the remarks section of the record.


Second, on March 15th:

The National Park Service…announced a final rule has been published in the Federal Register establishing a process for the disposition of Native American human remains that are in museums or on exhibit in the United States and which have not yet been culturally affiliated to a tribe or Native Hawaiian organization. There are currently more than 124,000 Native American human remains listed under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA) as unidentifiable, 4,000 individuals have been returned to tribes for re-burial in 82 agreements approved by the Secretary of the Interior.

This takes effect in May 2010. It’s specifically meant to address what institutions must do legally with Native American human remains that are considered unidentifiable as to affilation with modern, living Native American peoples (tribes).

Some clarification on the term “culturally unidentifiable” is included in the law (Federal Register, vol. 75, no. 49, Monday, March 15, 2010, page 12403, and here online). It says:

Culturally unidentifiable refers to human remains and associated funerary objects in museum or Federal agency collections for which no lineal descendant or culturally affiliated Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization has been identified through the inventory process.

The law goes on (same page):

Disposition means the transfer of control over Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony by a museum or Federal agency under this part.

This transfer process is also sometimes referred to as repatriation. Strictly speaking, repatriation refers to the return of someone to their own country.

The law (Federal Register, vol. 75, no. 49, Monday, March 15, 2010, page 12379, and here online) clarifies:

In brief, this rule pertains to those human remains, in collections, determined by museums and Federal agencies to be Native American, but for whom no relationship of shared group identity can be reasonably traced, historically or prehistorically, between a present day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization and an identifiable earlier group. These individuals are listed on inventories as culturally unidentifiable Native American human remains. The rule requires consultation on the culturally unidentifiable human remains by the museum or Federal agency with Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations whose tribal lands or aboriginal occupancy areas are in the area where the remains were removed. If cultural affiliation still cannot be determined and repatriation achieved, then the Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization may request disposition of the remains. The museum or Federal agency would then publish a notice and transfer control to the tribe, without first being required to appear before the Review Committee to seek a recommendation for disposition approval from the Secretary of the Interior. Disposition requests, which do not meet the parameters of the rule, would still require approval from the Secretary, who may request a recommendation from the Review Committee.

In response to this final rule, expect museums and institutions it applies to to once again review their collections.


Most recently, the professional archaeological community has expressed concern for funding for the NAGPRA Grants Program. This program seeks:

to increase the number of successful repatriations through the support for projects that increase the ability of tribes and museums to facilitate consultation and work together through the NAGPRA process.

Funding for this program, as with all federal programs, has received close scrutiny each year. For Fiscal Year 2011, again as with many programs, there’s a proposed cut in the budget. This is of special concern because grant applications can be expected to increase, especially in response to the final rule for culturally unidentifiable human remains mentioned above.

In response to this situation, on March 19th the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), a national organization with more than 7000 members, provided written testimony to the House Appropriations Committee “in regards to funding for the NAGPRA Grants Program, which is essential to the continued success of repatriation efforts in the United States” for Fiscal Year 2011.

Download a copy of the SAA’s testimony from this webpage.

In the written testimony, the SAA noted:

Of concern today is the issue of funding for the NAGPRA Grants Program in FY2011. The administration’s budget proposal, if enacted, would cut funding for the program by $581,000, instead of providing a much- needed increase to reflect current demand. SAA respectfully requests that Congress reject this proposed cut, and increase funding to a level of $4.2 million, as recommended by the 2008 National NAGPRA Review Committee report, in order to meet demonstrated need.

The SAA testimony documents how demand for NAGPRA funds has been increasing, and can be expected to increase. The SAA, therefore, has joined the National NAGPRA Review Committee in requesting increased funding for the NAGPRA Grant Program for FY2011.


Although many high-dollar programs are in the news these days, there are also many very important smaller programs in the news. Some link strongly to our nation’s archaeological heritage, such as these events related to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.